On a Wednesday evening in July, students in the new online Tlingit language course log on to Zoom. Elders are often given the floor, sharing stories, memories and songs while their adult children listen and provide tech support.
Tonight the class begins with a student sharing a story about her day — observing a hummingbird, enjoying the sunshine in Juneau and looking forward to the Tlingit class.
The online class has been offered every weekday evening in July, with days for beginner lessons, intermediate and advanced conversation. Each night between 50 and 120 students log on to speak, study and listen.
Families with children sit together on sofas, around laptops. Others appear on Zoom from kitchen tables, bedroom desks and living rooms. Students participate from across Alaska and North America.
Many Alaska Native languages, including Tlingit, were in jeopardy before the pandemic. According to the Sealaska Heritage Institute, in 2017 there were only about 40 fluent Tlingit speakers out of an estimated 100 speakers at various levels.
The class instructor, X’unei Lance Twitchell, teaches Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. He says the goal of language revitalization is to support new students and current speakers.
“I tell learners, you’re going to learn this language,” Twitchell said. “And then you’re going to be able to talk to some of these really old people, who are the remaining speakers, and they’re going to be able to share things with you that they can’t share with anybody else in the world right now, and then you’re going to get to know them in this very special way, and then you’re going to lose them.”
That’s how Twitchell learned Tlingit, from spending time with his elderly grandfather. He says it’s impactful for elders too and can contribute to generational healing.
“They’ve lived their whole life, just seeing decline, decline, decline, decline,” Twitchell said. “And toward the end, they get to see some younger people that they can actually talk with, and we’ve seen the impact. We’ve seen tears of joy, we’ve seen incredible moments that wouldn’t have happened if folks didn’t put in that hard work.”
As recently as a generation ago, elders say they were punished as children for speaking their language, especially at school. Stories and cases document violent assault on students, harassment, and other acts to erase Native culture, like cutting their hair.
Twitchell interviewed an older woman in Tlingit who recounted a teacher who sought her out every day with a sinister warning.
“And she said, well they never really hit me for speaking my language,” Twitchell said. “But I had this one teacher who would call me over every day, when she saw me, and I was just a little kid. And she’d say, ‘You think you people are just as good as us, but you never will be, you’re second-class citizens.’ And this is a school teacher talking to a child.”
Throughout the 20th century, eradication of Native culture was a widespread, systematic effort. It’s a dark side of American history that Twitchell says few are willing to acknowledge.
“A lot of people don’t want to do that,” Twitchell said. “They’ll get really upset, or say it was a long time ago. I didn’t do that. I don’t know why we’re talking about this, everything is better now.”
In fact, government policy, religious institutions and schools all had roles in trying to eradicate the Tlingit language — and more than 20 other Alaska Native languages and cultures. Twitchell says revitalizing the language helps address that history of systemic racism and marginalization of Native people.
“Some people will say, well they fell out of use. They don’t have uses in the modern world. And this is the way people might convince themselves that these things have happened,” Twitchell said. “And not that, children were tortured for being who they were, and that America committed this massive and orchestrated and intentional genocide of entire populations. Hundreds of languages.”
Investment in Native language learning is an investment in reviving the culture, customs and places of Native people. Twitchell says that process – and countering that erasure – could address the increased rates of addiction, violence and suicide seen in Alaska Native communities today.
“Now we have to decidedly move against it in order to have a different result,” Twitchell said. “Because a lot of people will talk about Indigenous peoples in the past tense — ‘oh they did this, they used this’ — it’s like no, they do that now, they use that now.”
Twitchell says Tlingit language learning opens up a window into 15,000 years of how people lived in the Southeast Alaska and Western Canada region.
The language is evolving, too, and Tlingit speakers are collaborating to come up with new words needed for today. At one point the class discusses the Tlingit words for “popcorn” and “parking lot.”
This summer, Sealaska Heritage Institute partnered with Outer Coast in Sitka to offer the online class for free. In a survey of participants, they say more than 600 students expressed interest, from all over North America — New Mexico to the Aleutian Islands.
“It’s been wonderful to see the numbers,” Twitchell said. “To see families there, to see lots of people and to see people trying. It’s really exciting to see.”
The language revitalization effort is modeled after Hawaii’s successful program, with the goal to offer Native language in all Alaska schools, from pre-kindergarten to college.
The Tlingit language class is continuing via Zoom, for free, for anyone interested. You can find information about the class, language resources and recordings of past classes at Tlingitlanguage.com.