By TOBEY SCHMIDT
Skagway was first inhabited, and even named, by the Native Alaskans of the Tlingit Nation. They fished, hunted and spoke their own language — Tlingit.
The native people also built the Chilkoot Trail, which they used along with tribes from Canada, to trade goods between the coast and the interior.
Today, there are about 25,000 Tlingit people living throughout Southeast Alaska, Canada and even many in California and Washington.
Among those 25,000 natives, only about 100 of them speak the Tlingit language. Of those 100, only 40 are fluent birth speakers — with an average age of 75 years old.
The Tlingit language is in danger of being lost and forgotten.
“When you remove the language, you remove this core of identity and function,” said Lance Twitchell, a Tlingit native and fluent speaker currently in Skagway working on his dissertation, which focuses on theoretical and social ways of increasing the number of Tlingit speakers.
“If you kill a language, the people die,” Twitchell said.
Twitchell is pursuing a Ph.D. in Hawaiian and Indigenous Culture and Language Revitalization at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
He is also a major advocate for revitalizing the Tlingit language. Twitchell’s three children are bilingual and he’s working on creating a school where they, and other children, could be taught entirely in Tlingit.
In 1995, when Twitchell was 20 years old, he began learning the Tlingit language from his grandfather, Si Dennis, who spoke it fluently. At the same time, he was working on his undergraduate degree.
While taking an upper-level English class he found a book titled, “Stabilizing Indigenous Languages.” He wrote a paper about the book for his class.
“It was graded by a teacher’s assistant who gave it back,” Twitchell recalled. “It said, ‘C-. Why doesn’t everybody just speak English?’”
There are more than 500 million English speakers in the world.
It may be hard for native English speakers to fathom the idea of having their language taken from them.
“If somebody comes here and they speak a language — French, Korean, German, Norwegian — and if their family moves here and then they stop speaking, they can go to those places and they can recover that language,” Twitchell explained. “If the Tlingit people and people who now live on Tlingit land don’t speak Tlingit, then the language goes away. It never comes back.”
In Twitchell’s dissertation he also focuses on some of the social issues that he’s come across when trying to revitalize the Tlingit language.
“I don’t believe that any race or any language is better than any other, but I think that it’s a commonly accepted principle that they are — that English is superior and English is smarter and more capable.”
Twitchell asks why indigenous knowledge and languages aren’t a bigger part of the curriculum in American schools, and why those schools are often an English-only place.
“Let’s look at multiple languages of people living — in particular the ones that were born here.”
There are currently no fluent Tlingit speakers in Skagway.
However, Sara Kinjo-Hischer, tribal administrator at Skagway’s Traditional Council, said that a few people have expressed interest in learning locally.
“I would like to see some type of a consistent class here, whether it’s distance-delivered or not, and hope to see some more indigenous language being used in the community and elsewhere,” Kinjo-Hischer said.
The Traditional Council has about 57 members registered, who are either Alaska Natives or American Indians. Kinjo-Hischer said they are in the process of trying to create a Tlingit language program for Skagway residents.
In an effort with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Twitchell is working on building more programs for young people to learn the language.
Their goal is to have 5,000-10,000 speakers 30 years from now, made up of both natives and non-natives.
In Juneau, the organization is trying to build a language nest, which is a preschool that would function entirely in Tlingit. They’d also like to have a school taught in Tlingit for older students.
The Central Council is a tribal government representing over 30,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide.
One of those members, Alyssa London, was recently crowned Miss Alaska USA. She is the first Alaska Native Tlingit woman to gain this title. London is a part of the Eagle moiety and Killerwhale clan.
“It forms my identity and influences my life’s work,” London said. “I want other Alaska Natives and Native Americans to be proud of who they are and to share and stand strong in their identity.”
London is also a motivational speaker and she is trying to use her platform to showcase the vitality and beauty of her culture.
“I serve as a motivator,” she said.
In regards to the Tlingit language, London would like to see youth carry it on and be proud of their rich culture and heritage.
For those in Skagway interested in learning Tlingit, Kinjo-Hischer encourages them to contact her so she knows how much interest there is in the community.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Traditional Council’s Facebook page.
“I would like both Tlingit and non-Tlingit people to know it, learn it, appreciate it,” Twitchell said. “It’s a very fun language.”