University of Alaska Southeast will offer some Alaska Native language classes for free, starting in the fall.
Alaska Native Languages professor X’unei Lance Twitchell says this is part of revitalizing the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian languages.
“We kept saying, Indigenous peoples did not choose to be in this situation. Our language was banished, it was prohibited, it was made illegal,” he said. “We were tortured and abused and all kinds of things to get us to stop speaking. So why should we have to pay to learn our own language?”
There has been a decline in the use of Alaska Native languages over the last hundred years due to genocide and assimilation. And many elders who were birth speakers died during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the Lingít language, fewer than 50 people who have been speaking the language since birth are still alive.
But Twitchell says there has been a shift toward language revitalization over the last decade. When Outer Coast in Sitka offered a year of free Lingít courses during the pandemic, 600 people signed up.
“Education was a vehicle of oppression and genocide and assimilation. So our goal is to transform it into a vehicle of opportunity and equity and healing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be medicinal. I think it’s going to alter the course of the way things are going. And it’s really exciting.”
Arts and Sciences Dean Carin Silkaitis says one of their main jobs is to support faculty and find ways to say yes.
“You have to open doors, you have to bring seats to tables,” they said. “And I think creating free curriculum is a way to create more access for people.”
Silkaitis says the free classes are made possible with help from Sealaska Heritage Foundation and a Language Pathways grant. Students who select the free option won’t earn credits or receive a grade.
Twitchell also serves on the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council for the state. The council has advised the governor and the legislature to make Native languages a statewide priority, to normalize their use and to reform state education to include Native languages.
Twitchell says free language instruction is one step toward achieving some of those goals.
“I think it’s going to reach a point where we’ll look back and we’ll say, ‘You remember how rare it was, when we didn’t speak it, to hear Lingít? You remember when hardly anybody knew Lingít?’” he said. “And then I think my hope is we look back at that and say, ‘What a strange time that was.’”
Disclosure: KTOO staff and reporters take Tlingit language lessons from Twitchell.