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According to the council's report, Alaska's native languages ​​are at a critical turning point

Before Monday night's advanced Tlingít language class, Raven Svenson and her classmate discussed how to conjugate the verb “cook” in the context of cooking. The University of Alaska Southeast Juneau class is entering finals week and students are preparing for dialogues that will test their conversation skills.

Professor X̱'unei Lance Twitchell came in and suggested the specific verb for cooking meat by boiling. He answered a few questions in English and then switched to Tlingít at the start of class. All of his students also changed languages. For the next hour, conversation was conducted almost entirely in the original language, which was spoken primarily from the mouth of the Copper River to the southern edge of the Alexander Archipelago and formed the basis of Tlingít cultural identity.

The classroom is a microcosm of the change that Twitchell and other members of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council have called for statewide: an Alaska committed to increasing the number of native Alaskan speakers and promoting the shared use of the languages.

“What Tlingít has in common with most other languages ​​in Alaska is that there are fewer than 50 speakers,” he said. “Most Alaskan languages ​​are critically endangered.”

The group has issued reports every two years to advise a dozen governors and lawmakers in Alaska, but this January it issued a call to action instead. The document is titled “Ayaruq,” the Yup'ik word for walking stick, to reflect that it is a guide for the way forward. It calls on Alaskans and lawmakers to affirm the right to Indigenous education, recognize oppression and intergenerational trauma, advocate for linguistic justice, and normalize the use of Alaska Native languages.

“We wanted to make sure that we at least challenged people not to just accept it and move on. However, no real action was taken,” Twitchell said.

Council members made specific policy proposals, including that a semester of an Alaskan native language be a requirement for high school graduation in the state, but none have yet been implemented in proposals from lawmakers.

“If we want anything other than language death, which I think is guaranteed for probably 20 of the 23 languages ​​- almost guaranteed – but if we want anything different, then we have to create systemic change,” he said.

A decade has passed since the last law supporting Alaska's native languages ​​was enacted. In 2014, the state updated a 1998 law recognizing Alaska Native languages ​​as official state languages.

Only part of the current legislation, sponsored by Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, addresses Alaska Native languages. House Bill 26 would expand and rename the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council and add three previously unrecognized Alaska Native Languages ​​to the list of official state languages. The House approved the bill in 2023, but the Senate has not yet scheduled a hearing.

Twitchell said part of the difficulty in implementing what he sees as “pretty significant changes” is that the shift from Alaska Native languages ​​to English has a history of violence and colonial oppression. Decades of colonial influence and Alaska Native boarding schools have steadily and often painfully reduced the number of fluent Alaska Native speakers.

“It's very hard to cut through the political noise and talk about just trying to survive the brutality of colonialism that a lot of people don't want to talk about and face,” he said.

He noted that Alaska is conceptually built on the idea of ​​the prospector, a newcomer, and has a very white identity. He pointed to the state seal, which depicts a farmer, a train and a boat; its motto is “From the North to the Future” and its license plate is “The Last Frontier.”

“I think asking Alaska as a whole to see itself as something more than just white is a tall order,” he said. “But I think it has to happen if you want to have the diversity that should be here and the plurality that should be here.”

Council members have warned for years that rapid government action to support language education and use is needed because many native speakers have died.

For example, half of the people who spoke the Kodiak dialect of the Alutiiq language died in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twitchell estimates that there are seven Tlingít speakers left who know “everything” in the language and another 20 who have a high level of proficiency. “After that, it drops off pretty dramatically,” he said.

A new generation

But as Alaska's native language community loses its older generation, Twitchell is seeing an exponential increase in the number of young people interested in learning. By his count, there are about 100 active Tlingít learners asking questions and using the language.

Many of them are in the classroom, where some of the students have opened their laptops to see another 15 online learners, some of whom come from areas where in-person Tlingit instruction is not offered. A fourth year of Tlingit study will be available next year, a sign that enough students are advanced enough to need one. Some of his students are taking the advanced class for the fourth or fifth time.

“The reality is that there just aren’t many places where you can speak this language,” he said. However, Twitchell said he is seeing a gradual change in Juneau. Many of the elders with whom he spoke Tlingít have died in the last 20 years. He remembered being worried that one day he would have no one to speak the language with. But then, on the way to the post office, someone passed by and greeted him in Tlingít: “Yak'éi yee x̲wsateení.” As they walked away, Twitchell realized he didn't recognize them.

Originally published by the Alaska Beaconan independent, nonpartisan news organization covering Alaska state government.

Anna Harden

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