We’re keeping a watchful eye on the direction of lava flow from Mauna Loa, and we’re thinking about snow. Winter words, that is. We’re thinking about what phrases and words to use to create a Lingít language immersion outing in the winter.
Wouldn’t it be fun to have a snowball fight with friends using the Lingít language only? You could have a sledding party where everyone tries out their Lingít words and phrases. It’s time to play outside — Gáanx’ ash kulyát gaawiú áyá.
Why go outside? Kusi.áat’ — It’s cold! It’s important to learn in a natural setting to remember things better. Learners apply holistic knowledge to their own world into more than one place in their brain. It reinforces learning and it’s easier for the learner to recall.
Recently, there have been many opportunities to take Southeast Alaska’s Indigenous language classes at the University of Alaska and through our tribal organizations. Wintertime is a good time to commit to learning your Indigenous language, or if you’re not Native, you’re invited to learn the languages of the land you’re living on. Nowadays, you can meet up in person or in a virtual environment. This is good news!
Dleit daak wusitán; It is snowing
We incorporated learning the Lingít language into our undergraduate and graduate school studies. Doing so, the language has taken on new life. A lot of us new speakers feel that when we speak, we’re waking up our ancestors by using the language, giving them respect and calling on them and our elders who are still with us. Before the arrival of the colonizers, Tlingit children learned their language beside grandmother when she was drying fish, beside grandfather when he was carving a spoon, beside uncle when he was baiting his halibut hooks. Getting as close to those experiences as we can is important.
Yes, we know that learning Lingít can be scary. Even committing to something so uncertain is scary. What if we fail? This fear can be a barrier. Our mentors Richard and Nora Dauenhauer talked about the barriers to learning language. Some of those obstacles are individual based and others are community based. There are anxieties, insecurities and hesitations about the value of maintaining and learning our Indigenous languages. The Dauenhauers also pointed out that many cultural programs emphasize singing and dancing over language acquisition. Some religious perspectives still view aspects of Indigenous cultures as evil, which has affected us throughout the generations. Our Elders likely have painful memories, including shame and embarrassment and guilt over the loss of their languages and culture.
Kaklahéen: wet snow; sleet
One of your Planet Alaska columnists is thinking about loss while building something in Hawaii. Many of us have experienced loss these past few years living through the pandemic, yet here we are, building something up again, even in the face of uncertainty. We’re working on property in Hawaii on the Big Island and building a tiny house, while Mauna Loa erupts for the first time in 38 years.
All things are temporary. The lava flows down the mountain nearby and the glacier recedes. But despite our lives on this planet being in constant flux of loss and gain, we can effect positive changes. One way to do that is to have our Indigenous languages live on in our communities and families. Because, really, our classrooms flow out into the world, and we take the language with us. We take it everywhere. We live it. The language is ours.
So, it’s time to shake off the attitude of waiting for someone else to revitalize the language. Let’s not wait to start sliding down the snowy hill, yelling, gook, gook! Yasátkw! He/She’s fast! It might take some planning, though, that includes getting together a list of weather phrases you want to learn and then practicing them first before you jump into the snow with both feet. Have fun with the language. Bundle up. Let’s go: Góok déi! The Lingít language needs to be alive rather than just read from a book. The language can live in the wings of a snow angel, or packed into a snowball tossed through the air, or whipped up in a bowl of snow ice cream you’ve made with your kids.
But how can you learn outside? Total Physical Response teaching is the best way to learn. The best way to explain what TPR is: If you’re an instructor, while you are outside in the snow saying, “Ganú”, you are motioning for someone to sit down. You motion with your hands and body, and you also do it until the student sits down. They you say, “Yak’éi”, which means “good.” TPR is using whatever is around you to convey the sounds and words that you’re trying to get across to the student. It’s not just memorization. It helps to put the language into more than one slot in your head. It helps you retain the words.
Ayakaawadán: It is snowing heavily.
Everything, even a snowy backyard for having a snowball fight can become a teaching environment, the opportunity to use TPR: the home, the street and grocery store — it isn’t limited to a school system.
And you don’t have to go outdoors, either. Immersion opportunities can happen indoors with family and friends. Winter is also the time for playing card games and board games and there are plenty of resources for playing games in the Lingít language, even Ast’eix nagú!—Go fish!
Smaller, intimate gatherings with family or friends can remove the anxiety we may have about practicing words and phrases in public. Even as learners-teachers we are aware we don’t know everything. We make mistakes; we pronounce things wrong, and we know that sometimes we are going to be judged and criticized. But it is important, so we, and we mean, you too, should do it anyway. It’s not easy to learn another language, however it’s very rewarding. Your brain and your spirit will thank you. For Indigenous peoples, every new word you learn brings you a greater understanding of your ancestors’ worldview and draws you closer to your ancestral relationships.
Dleit g̱éedi: Snowstorm
Wintertime is a time of reflection, and we consider when we first began to learn the Lingít language there were fewer resources. Now there are workbooks, dictionaries, online resources, YouTube videos, Zoom classes, free classes, college courses, apprenticeship opportunities, language preschools, immersion camps, and more. There are many more people wanting to learn the language. A great resource is the Tlingit MOOC (massive open online course) provided by Outer Coast and the wealth of sources and tools provided by Professor X’unei Lance Twitchell. According to tlingitlanguage.com, a MOOC is a platform to learn through conversations and lessons in a safe environment that encourages kindness and holding one another up.
One thing to remember is that the Lingit language revitalization coincides with a movement towards more political power and autonomy. Encourage young people to become interested in learning the Lingít language. When people are given the opportunity to learn the Lingít language, it opens a new way to understand the world. Their natural environment becomes alive with stories, traditions, songs, and dance. And in the winter, words can take on a new meaning. Building that snow fort or putting the stick arms on a snowman can imprint a beautiful Lingít phrase on our brains—Dleit daak wusitán.
Here are some practice phrases from “Lingít X’éináx Sá! Say It in Tlingit: A Tlingit Phrase Book,” edited by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Juneau:
— Kei kuguxsa.áat’. It will be cold
— Kei kunas.áat’. It’s getting cold
— Dleit daak wusitán. It’s snowing
— Dleit daak wusitan tatgé. It snowed yesterday
— Dleit daak guxsatáan. It will snow
— Dleit daak nastán. It’s starting to snow.
— Dleit daak guxsatáan shákdé. It will probably snow.
— Gwál dleit daak guxsatáan shákdé. Maybe it will snow.
— Seigan dleit daak guxsatáan. It will snow tomorrow.
— Seigan dleit daak guxsatáan shákdé. It will probably snow tomorrow.
— Yaa ayakanadán. It’s starting to snow hard.
*We apologize if there are any mistakes in the Lingít spelling and grammar. We are still learning.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.