Alaska Native languages at crucial juncture, biennial report says

By: Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon

X’unei Lance Twitchell teaches an advanced Tlingít course at University of Alaska Southeast on April 29, 2024. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

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

Professor X̱’unei Lance Twitchell walked in and suggested the specific verb for cooking meat by boiling. He answered a few questions in English, then switched to Tlingít as he started class. All his students switched languages, too. For the next hour, conversation was almost exclusively in the original language spoken primarily from the mouth of the Copper River to the southern edge of the Alexander Archipelago and the foundation for Tlingít cultural identity.

The classroom is a microcosm of the change Twitchell and other members of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council called for statewide: An Alaska committed to increasing the number of Alaska Native language speakers and promoting common use of the languages.

“Tlingít, the thing that it has in common with most of the other languages in Alaska is that there’s fewer than 50 speakers remaining,” he said. “The majority of Alaska’s languages are severely endangered.”

The group has issued biannual reports to advise a dozen years of Alaska governors and lawmakers, 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 on the path forward. It asks Alaskans and lawmakers to affirm the right to Indigenous education, acknowledge oppression and intergenerational trauma, commit to language equity and normalize the use of Alaska Native languages.

“We wanted to make sure that at least we would challenge people to not just receive it and move on. However, there hasn’t been any real action on it,” Twitchell said.

Council members made specific policy suggestions, including that one semester of an Alaska Native language be a prerequisite for high school graduation in the state, but none of them have yet materialized in proposals from lawmakers.

“If we want something other than language death, which I think is guaranteed for probably 20 of the 23 languages — just guaranteed — but if we want something different, then we have to have systemic change,” he said.

A decade has passed since the last legislation to support Alaska Native languages became law. In 2014, the state updated a 1998 law that recognized Alaska Native Languages as official state languages.

Only one piece of 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, as well as 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 yet to schedule it for a floor hearing.

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

“It’s very hard to push through political noise, and to talk about just trying to survive the brutality of colonialism, which is what a lot of people don’t want to sort of talk about and face,” he said.

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

“I think to ask Alaska as an entity to see itself as something more than just whiteness is a big ask,” he said. “But I think it has to happen, if you’re going to have the diversity that should be here, and the plurality that should be here.”

Members of the council have cautioned for years that swift state action is needed to support language pedagogy and use, since many first-language 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 estimated that there are seven Tlingít speakers left who can “do everything” in the language and another 20 that have a high level of fluency. “It drops off pretty dramatically after that,” he said.

A new generation

But as the Alaska Native language community loses its older generation, Twitchell says he sees an exponential increase in the number of young people interested in learning. By his count, there are about 100 active Tlingít learners that ask questions and use the language.

Many of them are in the classroom, where a few of the students have their laptops open to reveal another 15 online learners, several from areas where in-person Tlingit lessons are not available. Next year a fourth year of Tlingit study will be available, a marker that enough students have progressed to the point where they need one. Some of his students are taking the advanced class for the fourth or fifth time.

“The reality is there are just not very many places to speak this language,” he said. Twitchell said he is starting to see a shift in Juneau, however. Many of the elders he used to speak Tlingít with have died in the last 20 years. He remembered feeling worried that one day he would have no one with whom to speak the language. But then, on a trip to the post office, somebody walked by and greeted him in Tlingít: “Yak’éi yee x̲wsateení.” As they walked away, Twitchell realized he didn’t recognize them.