Letter to the editor: All have a role in Alaska Native language revitalization

Editor’s note: The following is a letter from University of Alaska Southeast Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages Lance Twitchell on the University of Alaska Southeast’s sign now including the Tlingit language. See the Capital City Weekly’s story about the change in our Jan. 11 issue.

I believe I wrote the line “Áak’w Kwáan Aaní Káx’” in an email to several people, and Richard Caulfield was the Provost at the time. He was taking Tlingit language classes, and asked if it would be appropriate to use that in an email signature. Shortly after that, we talked about incorporating it into the signage in front of UAS. Chancellor Emeritus John Pugh and Chancellor Richard Caulfield both were highly supportive of using the Tlingit language as a part of the UAS identity, and also incorporating Tsimshian and Haida languages as well.

This is highly important because if you want to revitalize languages, then normalization and vernacularization should be part of your long term goals. Normalization means the language is seen and heard, so that seeing and hearing it are not uncommon things. One of the things that tends to happen with indigenous languages, after generations of language oppression, genocidal policies, and torture techniques, is that the language becomes foreign in its own place and even to its own people. The result is a distorted sense of normal that we call “cultural hegemony” where it is normal to be monolingual and expect everything only in English.

Vernacularization, on the other hand, is trying to make the target language the language of everyday use. If people are going to talk about weather, personal relationships, vehicles, sports, politics, or whatever, you want them to not have to switch to English to do those things. For indigenous languages, this takes some work because of some of the above mentioned items and also some additional racist principles that foster a belief that indigenous languages are incapable of talking about anything other than extreme traditions or ancient things. The irony is that oppressed languages were forced out of use by social pressures and genocidal policies and institutions, so they were never allowed to modernize themselves and talk about a wide variety of topics. Imagine taking an English speaking American from 1920 and putting them in a time machine and asking them to talk about Facebook, quantum physics, NASCAR, flight, and vaping. It would take work.

Part of our work is to demystify fundamentally racist principles, like these ones: it is up to indigenous people to learn and use indigenous languages, indigenous languages are only good for certain things, teaching entirely in indigenous languages will put children behind or in an outdated frame of mind, mandatory curriculum should exclude indigenous languages. Another part is putting the language back into the community by making it visible, heard, used, and expected. This means restoring indigenous place names and encouraging everyone to be part of language movement building. Maybe we were not the generation that decided to murder languages and therefore commit genocide, but we can be the generation that undoes inhumanity by embracing a right to equal existence. We can also be the generation that does not assign a value without understanding what we are assigning value to: the monolingual cannot understand the value of indigenous languages and therefore should have no opinion of its value.

Another big part is changing systems. This sign is more than just an incorporation of language. It positions the university as a guest on indigenous territory, which opens the door for more of these dialogues on equity. Alaska Airlines is creating greetings in Alaska Native languages to post on large signs that go on the airports that they own, and I believe the City of Juneau is incorporating a Tlingit welcome outside of their airport. We all have accountability here. We all have a role to play, not in what happened, but in what is going to happen, and when we work together then indigenous language revitalization becomes possible.

X’unei – Lance A. Twitchell

Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages

University of Alaska Southeast

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