Starting this fall, UAS will offer free Alaska Native language classes

The main campus of the University of Alaska Southeast is located near Auke Bay in Juneau. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

The University of Alaska Southeast will offer free Alaska Native language classes starting in the fall.

X’unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native languages, says it’s part of revitalizing the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian languages.

“We kept saying that Indigenous peoples didn’t choose to be in this situation. Our language has been banished, it has been banned, it has been made illegal,” he said. “We were tortured and abused and all sorts of things to make us stop talking. So why should we pay to learn our own language? »

There has been a decline in the use of Alaska Native languages ​​over the past hundred years due to genocide and assimilation. And many elders who were native speakers have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the Lingít language, less than 50 people who speak the language from birth are still alive.

But Twitchell says there has been a shift toward language revitalization over the past decade. When Outer Coast in Sitka offered a year of free Lingít classes during the pandemic, 600 people signed up.

Education was a vehicle of oppression, genocide and assimilation. So our goal is to turn it into a vehicle of opportunity, equity and healing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be medicinal. I think that will change the course of things. And it’s really exciting.

Arts and Science Dean Carin Silkaitis says one of their main jobs is to support teachers and find ways to say yes.

“You have to open doors, you have to bring seats to tables,” they said. “And I think creating a free program is a way to create more access for people.”

Silkaitis says the free classes are made possible with help from the Sealaska Heritage Foundation and a Language Pathways grant. Students who select the free option will not earn credits or receive a grade.

Twitchell also serves on the Alaska Native Language Advisory and Preservation Council for the state. The council advised the governor and legislature to make indigenous languages ​​a statewide priority, standardize their use, and reform public education to include indigenous languages.

Twitchell says free language education is a step towards achieving some of these goals.

“I think we’re going to come to a point where we’ll look back and say, ‘Do you remember how rare it was, when we weren’t speaking it, to hear Lingít? Do you remember when hardly anyone knew Lingít?’ ” he said. “And then I think my hope is that we look back on that and say, ‘What a weird time that was. “”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the institution that offered to offer a year of free language lessons during the pandemic. It was the outer coast in Sitka.

Disclosure: KTOO staff and reporters take Tlingit language classes at Twitchell.

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Sylvester L. Goldfarb