There’s no title for the screenplay yet, but now X̱’unei Lance Twitchell has a fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation to realize a longtime dream — to bring a true story to life, about how Native boarding schools systematically tried to kill indigenous languages.
Twitchell says this dark chapter in history has recently pushed into the mainstream consciousness, but he’s heard stories for years, from elders like the late Marge Dutson.
“They tried everything. They tried to beat it out of me. They tried to scare it out of me. They tried to shame it out of me. But they couldn’t get my language away from me,” he said she once told him.
She also shared a story about her first day of class at the Juneau Bureau of Indian Affairs school, when her teacher grabbed her by the hair, lifted her off the ground and shook her violently to punish her for speaking Lingít.
Twitchell said these stories of courage still inspire him today, but when he set out to record them years ago, a linguist — the late Michael Krauss, who worked to preserve a number of Alaska Native languages, some of which have disappeared — encouraged him to get elders to share them in Lingít, because it would better preserve the details of what they experienced.
That’s when he decided to tell the story — in Lingít — of two boys who ran away from their boarding school.
“Torture, abuse of all different kinds was going on in these places – and then to sort of have that from the perspectives of two young people, who are birth speakers of Lingít and who are there as siblings and can communicate with each other and make a decision to get out of that, I think it has a lot of potential power.”
The boys used their traditional knowledge to guide them home from Oregon. It’s a story he heard from several members of the same family, who have since passed, except for Florence Sheakley. Sheakley’s father, Willie Marks, is the boy who ran away from the school with his brother.
Twitchell says the springboard for the screenplay will be a high quality film of the elder telling her story in Lingít. Twitchell will receive $18,000 for his work and will share some of it with Sheakley.
He says it won’t be easy to write the script entirely in Lingít but the words of Marge Dutson remind him why it’s so important.
“Él i tóoch ulchéeshiḵ wáa sá eeshandéin yoo haa kaawashóo chʼu tle tlél ḵáa tuwáa ushgú haa yoo x̱ʼatángi,” he said. “And she said it’s impossible for you to feel how much we suffered when people didn’t want our language.”
Twitchell hopes a screenplay in Lingít can capture some of that feeling. He says subtitles can be used if the script is ever turned into a movie.
The Rasmuson Foundation also awarded two other Juneau Lingít artists project grants: poet Ishmael Hope and Sydney Akagi, a Lingít weaver and photographer, who will each receive $7,500.
A previous version of this story mentioned that Twitchell was working on a play. The project is a screenplay. The headline has been corrected.