Spoken Tlingit in race against time
Like similar programs that have sprung up in the region in the past decade, Sheldon Museum’s Tlingit class is building an appreciation and awareness of the area’s indigenous language.
But a larger effort will be needed to keep the language from fading into history, advocates say.
"The fate of the Tlingit language is a lot brighter than it was 10 or 15 years ago," said Linda Belarde, Tlingit education specialist for Sealaska Heritage Foundation. "There are more learners who can say more than a few words and an introduction. But it’s still going to be a tough road."
She characterizes the language as "endangered."
Only about 150 people can speak Tlingit, and their numbers are dwindling. Each year, there are fewer "birth speakers," those exposed to the language from infancy. About 10 Southeast residents are "heritage language learners," adults who’ve picked up the language from study, but their numbers are small for the task.
"We have fewer and fewer fluent speakers. And we still don’t have a critical mass of serious learners," Belarde said. "We need to learn enough to be able to chit-chat with each other rather than just say who you are, and where are you going… To be a practical language, you have to be able to use it to talk about everyday things."
The University of Alaska-Southeast and various schools and Native organizations offer Tlingit instruction, but learning the language – which includes 24 sounds that don’t exist in English – takes years.
Belarde points out that in Hoonah, Tlingit is a required language for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. "The main problem is that kids can learn a lot but if they don’t have a place they can use it, it’s just a classroom thing. They go home and even their grandparents don’t speak it. If they’re lucky, they may have a great-grandparent who does."
Marsha Hotch of Klukwan helped launch the Sheldon Museum’s class. At age 56, she is one of the youngest of the birth speakers. Her parents, Willie and Maggie Lee, spoke Tlingit at home, as did her grandparents. "Coming to our home was like walking into a different world. They were orators. They could tell stories."
In the 1950s, probably half the adults in Klukwan could speak Tlingit, Hotch said. Today, there are about seven. Hotch has led language programs in Haines and Klukwan for 12 years and works as a language consultant for Sealaska.
At the current rate of attrition, she estimates there’s about 10 years left to save the language. "If we don’t speed things up, it will be too late."
The only way it could be done, she believes, is gathering Tlingit speakers and students in a house-like setting, where learning would be by immersion over a longer spell of time. Learners could be sent back to villages to create similar immersion efforts in family homes.
"Classrooms are an artificial setting. In a home setting, we can make it possible… It can be done if we band together and work together. I believe that 100 percent. It takes motivation. It takes time. It takes a lot of thinking and strategizing. And it takes funding."
Documenting the language also is important, she said. "That’s what we need to be doing now, any way we can, as fast as we can."
Language is critical because it captures ways of thinking and acting that don’t exist outside Tlingit culture and don’t have corresponding English words, she said. For example, Tlingits had a vocabulary for the rules of living together when multiple families shared a single longhouse.
"They needed each other to exist and they had intricate structure and norms. They had boundaries and ways to address things to keep the peace. When we lose the language, we lose that protocol and the ways of getting along," Hotch said.
"Some people feel our culture will still go along without our language. I disagree."
There’s a lot of talk of wellness in the Native community, and Hotch sees restoring language as a kind of healing from a time when Natives were sometimes prohibited from using their language.
But Hotch said she also realizes even her students have other priorities. "That’s sad, but it’s part of life. I can’t follow you around or force you to speak Tlingit."
The payoffs for her, Hotch said, come in small moments. Like recently when a blond-haired, blue-eyed, former student of hers shouted out to her in the street the Tlingit expression for, "It’s a good day. It’s a sunny today."
Or at a naming ceremony at a Juneau public school, where about 100 students sang in Tlingit a song from a century ago that had only recently been discoverd.
"To go to a restaurant and have the waitress ask me for my order in Tlingit, I love that," she said.