Story last updated at 10/16/2013 - 7:18 pm
Lance Twitchell, Tlingit language speaker and associate professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, was working toward an English major in his Minnesota college when he wrote an essay on the revitalization of Native American languages.
When he got the essay back, it had an uncharacteristically bad grade, and one of the only comments was "Why doesn't everybody speak English?"
"(I thought) 'They still make people like you?'" Twitchell said. "I was really surprised."
Seeing that opposition is one of the factors that set him on working with others to make Southeast Alaska "a place languages live instead of die." Another was his grandfather.
Twitchell was born in Skagway of Tlingit, Haida, Yupik, English and Sami ancestry.
It wasn't until he was around 19, when his maternal grandfather got sick, that he really became interested in Tlingit. He asked his grandfather to teach him. He also began studying on his own.
"When my Grandpa passed away, the language became my connection to him. That was the one thing he and I had that no one else had," Twitchell said.
In 2003, he attended a "life-changing" language immersion class with a "very small, very united group of language learners" sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute. At the end, participants were so close elders could finish students' sentences.
The class was also an emotionally cathartic experience, he said. After more than a century of Native language repression, about 200 Tlingit language speakers, about six Haida speakers, and about 30 Coastal Tsimshian speakers remain, he said in a recent Juneau Empire editorial.
"All these different things are really deep spiritual wounds for people that come in the classroom," he said. "Those things help to fuel us, help to connect us."
Culture and cultural knowledge are embedded in language; Twitchell said that when he speaks Tlingit, he speaks more slowly and is more focused. He thinks in terms of kinship. He's able to understand and express different kinds of humor than he can in English. But what he's hungriest for is immersion.
"We're all lonely," he said of those that want to speak their native languages. "Elders who speak Tlingit are hungry for more chances to speak."
Now Twitchell, along with others, is working to change the way Alaska Natives and Native languages are treated and perceived.
"What I really want to do is transform locally," Twitchell said. He has several goals.
One is making public education 50 percent English and 50 percent the language of the native population, he said. Science and history might be taught in Tlingit, for example, and social studies and math in English.
Another would be recognizing all Alaska Native languages as official state languages; English as the only recognized state language implies English is superior to Native languages, he said.
"A lot of the fundamental concepts are born out of racism," Twitchell said. "But now we're more enlightened human beings. We should be able to have these conversations."
He wants to change the perceived difficulty of learning a language past childhood, as well as to make Tlingit language education more affordable. This semester, with the support of UAS administration, Twitchell began making his classes available on YouTube for free. He's also posted numerous translated videos of Tlingit elders and guides to Tlingit pronunciation and words.
"The knowledge does not come from me. The knowledge comes from these different elders whose work I study and whom I am fortunate enough to have as teachers," he said.
Another goal is to restore more Native names to the land.
"Local knowledge should be a part of our vocabulary and should be respected," he said. "It's everybody's problem. Even if you live here and you just got here, the fact you can walk around, speak English, and feel comfortable means someone has paid for that."
Racism is still alive and well, represented in the prison population's percentage of Alaska Natives, he said.
"There's this existence of violence out there and as a Native person you know it's out there. You know systems are set up for you to fail - education systems, prison systems. My belief is language and decolonizing power structures is the key to undoing that," he said. "It was human beings that built these systems. Human beings can undo these systems."
Another goal is to make general knowledge about Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture and history, as well as localized information, part of public education.
He also wants to keep growing UAS' Bachelor in Liberal Arts with an emphasis on Alaska Native Languages and Studies, adding three tracks - languages, arts, or cultures.
"The biggest thing that I would hope is that we just produce more speakers... this knowledge exists on the exact same level as anything else," he said. "Astronomy, philosophy - any field. It's as valuable and legitimate as any field there is. But the bigger goal is to transform our community so that language lives here."
In keeping with that idea, he wants to create "language nests" in local communities. Anyone would be welcome, but once they arrived they could only speak the Native language of that particular place.
He and some friends are starting a Tlingit immersion daycare they hope will expand in coming years. Twitchell speaks only Tlingit to his two-year-old daughter.
She can make all the sounds, and understands about 70 percent of what he says, he said. "Before she was even two she would translate for her mother," he said.
Twitchell emphasizes that he is one of many.
"Revitalization is happening and has been happening. It isn't something that's because of me. Everything we do builds on decades of dedicated work to make this language more understandable, to make it something we can teach," he said. "I can sit down with a student for five years, but I can't do with them what an elder can do in an hour.... There's no fun that's greater than what we do with our languages."
Find Twitchell's YouTube posts here: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaV32yDWC63DKf5MEyJtxuQ.
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