Robert Edwardson, left, speaks during the Native Issue Forum on the current state and future of Alaska Native languages at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday. Other speakers are Alfie Price, second from left, Lance Twitchell, Marvin Adams and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, right. Kolene James, center, is the moderator.

Robert Edwardson, left, speaks during the Native Issue Forum on the current state and future of Alaska Native languages at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday. Other speakers are Alfie Price, second from left, Lance Twitchell, Marvin Adams and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, right. Kolene James, center, is the moderator.

Advocates say Tlingit language immersion preschool, childcare coming to Juneau this year

The Alaska Legislature is considering two bills that would pave the way for language immersion charter schools in the state. But one of the bill’s sponsors, Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, said at the Native Issues Forum Wednesday it’s possible to create language immersion schools right now.

“If you were the parent of a child in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel you actually have the ability to enroll your son or daughter in immersion language Yup’ik elementary school through the fifth grade,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

“I think that’s a fact that many people in Southeast Alaska and many people in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Kodiak do not know, but it’s a fact worth knowing and it’s a fact work emulating and replicating,” he added.

That’s exactly what Lance Twitchell has been working toward in Juneau. Twitchell is an assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast and a language advocate.

Kreiss-Tomkins and Twitchell were two of five panel speakers at the forum, which had an audience of about 100 at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall.

Twitchell said a partnership between the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and a long list of other organizations and tribes is going to start a childcare and preschool that raises and teaches children entirely in Tlingit. Tlingit language instructor Mary Folletti will be the teacher.

“We are going to resist all suggestions that this will leave them behind, or that they are missing opportunities. We are going to stop at nothing and make sure this begins and happens this year,” Twitchell said.

He said the partnership is also going to build a Tlingit language medium school that teaches K-12 curriculum entirely in the Tlingit language.

“Without our languages, we are darker-skinned, card-carrying white people who know how to fish, hunt, dance but cannot speak with our ancestors,” he said.

Marvin Adams, CCTHITA’s fifth vice president, said federal money through the Bureau of Indian Affairs could help bring other ideas like this into fruition.

“We need to keep the pressure on to get funding brought back to Alaska. It’s important because we have to pay for our language teachers. We have to get money for that,” Adams said.

“This type of activity will allow us to have a say in what we teach our children,” he added.

Two of the other panel speakers were examples of Alaska Native language learners.

Alfie Price, who is both Tlingit and Tsimshian, studies Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language.

He’s part of a group of six in Juneau that meet regularly multiple times a week to learn Sm’algyax. Similar efforts are taking place elsewhere in Southeast, like Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

Price said in British Columbia, there are more than 30 fluent speakers. In Alaska, only seven remain and they’re all elderly.

“The future of Sm’algyax depends on those of us who refuse to let it disappear,” Price said. “We have so much work to do.”

Robert Edwardson first started learning Haida when he was a boy growing up in Ketchikan, but gave it up in his teenage years.

He didn’t pick it again until his daughter started studying Haida at the University of Alaska Southeast and his wife and son started learning as well.

“They did classes and I didn’t, and I was listening to them talk in Haida and the more they talked, the more I remembered it, and I decided I wanted a little of that, too,” Edwardson said.

He started taking classes three years ago. Now, as a 50-year-old, he’s determined to become fluent, no matter how long it takes.

Edwardson said there are only about three fluent speakers of Alaska Haida.

“But I actually like our chances,” Edwardson said.

“Where I think the future of Haida is going is toward technology,” he said. “We do our classes over Google Hangout. It’s a little bit difficult sometimes, getting all the computers to line up but we do video-conferencing and it works fantastic and compared to doing nothing, it’s phenomenal.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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