Courtesy Xh’unei Lance Twitchell
Tlingit Language Instructor Mary Folletti leads “Tlingit Toddler Time” at the Juneau Valley Library. This is the early stages of the planned Tlingit “Language Nest.” Pictured, from left, are: Kiana Twitchell, Ava Twitchell, Enza Cruise, instructor Mary Folletti, Jude Nelson, Crystal Nelson, Roz Cruise, and Miriah Twitchell.

‘Our Language Is Like Medicine’: Tlingit Immersion School to Provide a Path to Revitalization

Frank Hopper

Genocide stole our Native languages and replaced them with shame. Native parents, who were often punished for speaking it in school, gradually stopped speaking and teaching their peoples’ languages. As a result, new generations grew up not knowing their own mother tongue and instead faced a wall, a language barrier, keeping them locked outside their birthright. The resulting shame and anger are just some of the emotional baggage Native people carry with them when they try to learn their indigenous languages as adults.

“But with little kids, you speak the language to them and they get it.”

Alaska Native Languages Assistant Professor Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, University of Alaska Southeast, thinks it’s time to stop trying to fix the old state-run, English-based education system.

“We have an education system that graduates about 50 percent of Alaska Native students. At some point, as Alaska Native people, we’re going to have to say that’s not enough, that’s not good enough.”

Twitchell envisions building an entirely new system in which everything is taught through the medium of Alaska Native languages. He plans a pilot program to begin in 2017 that’s designed around the Tlingit language and culture.

“We’re going to teach all of the content that a typical school would, from a much more cultural perspective, and we’re going to teach it all through the Tlingit language.”

University of Alaska Southeast Alaska Native Languages Assistant Professor Xh’unei Lance Twitchell speaks about language revitalization at the Alaska Language Summit in February, held at the Walter Sobeloff Cultural Center in Juneau. (Courtesy Alfie Price)

Working with several different tribal organizations, in particular the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, he plans to open a Tlingit language immersion preschool, or “Language Nest,” in April, followed by a Tlingit immersion kindergarten in the fall of 2017.

“The goal is to start with kindergarten in the fall of 2017 and then to build it one year at a time, because we’re going to have to build curriculum, train teachers to teach this method, recruit students. I believe that this is the most sure path to language revitalization.”

Twitchell patterns the new school after the Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu (Nawahi) Hawaiian Immersion School in Kea’au, one of the most advanced and successful language revitalization programs in the country.

“We’re down to about 100 speakers now, but I think if you look at Hawaii, they were in a similar situation about 30 years ago and now they have 4,000 people learning the language in college, or in their preschools, or in their K through 12 schools.”

Founded in 1994, the Nawahi Immersion School provides instruction for nearly 200 preschool through 12th grade students in everything from science to math. All classes are taught in Hawaiian. It has a 100 percent high school graduation rate with 80 percent going on to attend college.

In Alaska, as in Hawaii, it will all start with little kids coming to a preschool where only their mother tongue is spoken.

“Really you’re just practicing being in a home environment where Tlingit would be the first language. It’s been 50 years since we’ve had kids who were raised in the language.”

The pain caused by this lack of new speakers is demonstrated for Twitchell when he talks with fluent Native language speakers in their mother tongue.

“A lot of them would say things like, ‘Gee, I haven’t spoken like this since my father died.’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘You know, it’s been 20 years and I’ve hardly spoken the language at all.’”

Twitchell’s own grandfather, Silas Dennis Sr., first interested him in learning Tlingit.

“I didn’t know anything about Tlingit until I was about 20 years old and I started asking my grandpa about it. And it formed a bond with us. We were the only ones in our family that could really do anything with the language. I didn’t learn very much before he passed away. Then it sort of became this way to keep a special memory of him alive.”

Twitchell remembers how his grandfather pushed him to learn, imparting a sense of urgency about learning that he never forgot.

“He really seemed in a hurry to tell me a lot of things. I noticed that it went from us conversing to him talking and then me beginning to talk and then him just talking right over me. And I was okay with that because I felt like he had things that he needed to let me know. So he was setting me up for a life where I was going to go and be walking with our culture and with our language, which is a tough thing to do.”

Xh’unei Lance Twitchell sits beside Tlingit elder, author, linguist and scholar Nora Marks Dauenhauer at the Alaska Language Summit. Heather Powell, a language teacher from Hoonah, sits to her right. (Courtesy Alfie Price)

In his role as an Alaska Native language instructor, Twitchell has often confronted the pain his adult students feel when trying to learn their mother tongue.

“Sometimes there’s going to be all these different triggers that sort of emerge because we’re a people just right on the cusp of this very successful genocide, because our language is just right there slipping away from us. As we come back, as we sort of emerge and we try to reclaim this identity, we’re going to find so many different points of pain and shame, all this array of feelings. A lot of them are very negative. We’ve got to face those things.”

Students often give up and quit when confronted with their own negative feelings. Instead of working through them, they simply ignore or deny the feelings and abandon their studies.

“But the problem with forgetting and just not looking at it is that you just get absorbed into this assimilation machine. Our elders always say, ‘Our language is like medicine.’ There’s so much power in the language and we’re trying to tap into that.”

By recognizing this quality of Native languages, tribal-run Native language immersion schools will bring healing to many generations, from young children who will pick up the language naturally, to their parents who can use the opportunity to overcome the demons of assimilation, and to the elders who will see from the fruits of the program their way of life is not lost.

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