The legislature passed a bill granting the designation to 20 Alaska Native languages. Gov. Sean Parnell is expected to sign the measure soon. Supporters hope it will help boost efforts to revitalize those languages, many of which have just a handful of native speakers left. One such effort took place in Juneau last week: A camp that’s using sport to keep the Tlingit language alive.
On the basketball court at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, a dozen middle and high school students warm up for their first day of camp. As they stretch near half court, Jessica Chester counts to 10 in Tlingit: “Tléix’, déix, nás’k, daax’oon, keijín, tleidooshú, daxadooshú, nas’gadooshú, gooshúk, jinkaat.”
Chester teaches Alaska Native languages for the Juneau School District. She’s been helping out with Sealaska Heritage Institute’s summer basketball camps since 2006. She says all of the drills incorporate at least some Tlingit.
“You know, if they’re saying, ‘Go get a ball,’ I’m going to be behind the coach saying ‘kooch’eit’aa…” You know, go get a ball in Tlingit,” she says.
Chester’s originally from Yakutat, where she grew up hearing elders speak the language. She began studying it herself in college.
Languages carry the ideas, and the feelings, and the emotions and thoughts of a culture, of a people, and so bringing that back is real important to me,” she says.
Linguists say fewer than 150 native Tlingit speakers are alive today. Some Alaska indigenous languages have no remaining native speakers. They exist only in written form or as recordings.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is dedicated to advancing the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. President Rosita Worl says many Alaska Natives grew up ashamed of their languages and traditions.
“We’ve had a policy and history in this country to suppress Native languages and suppress Native culture,” Worl says.
About 15 years ago, the heritage institute decided to make language preservation its top priority. Worl says the inspiration came after meeting with a group of Hawaiian language preservationists. That state officially recognized indigenous languages in 1978.
“We looked at their programs,” Worl says. “And I will tell you, our board of trustees started to cry, because they saw little children speaking the Hawaiian language. And they said, ‘If the Hawaiians can do that, we can do that.'”
Now that Native languages are getting official recognition in Alaska, efforts like this camp are expected to grow.
Worl says she no longer worries about the Tlingit language becoming extinct.
“It may be that it will never be spoken as a first language. But we have always said that you’ll be hearing the voices of our ancestors through our children,” she says.
Michelle Martin’s daughter and son are attending the camp for the third time. Martin’s from Hoonah, where she picked up some of the language from her grandparents. She says her kids already speak it better than she does.
“I can understand phrases and I know what they’re saying,” Martin says. “And I try to learn, and I’m like, oh my gosh, I need to go back and learn some more.”
Most of the kids say they were initially hooked because of the basketball, but keep coming to learn their language. Jaime Kelley-Paul, 16, says he’s not even that interested in sports. Instead, he wants to build up the Alaska Native pride that was almost lost.
It’s my culture. I love it,” Kelley-Paul says. “It’s fun to learn about it. It’s important to keep our culture alive instead of just everyone being one type of person.”
Kelley-Paul says he can’t wait to teach his little brother everything he learned about Tlingit language and culture.
*Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Friday August 8, 2014.