Learning Lingít: A Personal Wish and a Cultural Imperative

People around the world get caught up a lot on the "usefulness" of language. I remember that while I was living in Strasbourg, a girl I talked with complained about being from the Czech Republic because of how "useless" knowing Czech was. (I think she could speak at least four languages, no less.) She said she had at least been lucky to live near Germany, so she could learn that "useful" language relatively quickly. When first hearing this, I was fazed. Afterward, though, all I could think was, How can you say that? Your ancestors fought and died to protect your native language! And indeed, if history had gone a bit differently, Czechs today might well be speaking German, and Czech would hardly be spoken at all.

Admittedly, I too chose to learn a "useful" language - French, which is the second most common second language in the world. However, if you asked me what language I most want to learn next, or wish for instant fluency in it, I would tell you I want to speak Lingít (Tlingit), the native language of the northern Pacific Northwest.

Lingít naaxein (a Tlingit Chilkat blanket) [source]
If you then asked me why I would want to learn Lingít, I have a very simple answer: Because Southeast Alaska - and more particularly, Ketchikan, Alaska - is my one and only home. I might move other places in my life, all around the globe, but there will never be anywhere else that means home to me like Ketchikan does. (I think this is a feeling shared by a lot of people who grow up in Ketchikan or live there for a number of years, regardless of their background.)

Lingít, then, is the language of my home. I don't have a drop of Tlingit blood in me, nor does anyone among my closest friends. Wáashdan kwaan áyá xát. I am of the Boston Tribe, i.e. the Americans, i.e. white. All the same, when you feel such a strong, deep connection to a place, I believe you should also feel deeply connected to its heritage. When I look out on the Tongass Narrows every day, across the water to Pennock Island, Gravina Island or Annette Island, I know those were once lands and waterways where the only language heard was Lingít, perhaps for many many long centuries, punctuated only by occasional Haida, Tsimshian and Nisga'a travelers.

Now with English utterly dominant here, maybe for nearly a century, it's not a "shame" for Lingít to be so endangered - it's a crime and a great injustice. Lingít was heavily persecuted, for decades and for more than one generation, by the force of a powerful and bigoted education system as well as a highly prejudiced society. With the language made so frail because of this cultural violence, it's still possible it could die out, surviving only in the Ivory Tower and history books.

I'm not saying everyone in Southeast Alaska should be forced to learn some Tlingit. I don't even think it's realistic for many Natives to take up learning it. However, I think Lingít deserves a lot more respect and notoriety in Ketchikan and around the region: Realistically, that means placement on signs, classes in the public schools, and just saying a simple gunalchéesh (thank you). Just today I taught a few Tlingit words to some Korean visitors at my work. Small actions like that, repeated thousands of times, may help move people forward toward achieving the cultural imperative of learning, preserving and promoting Lingít.

(Please see my other posts about the Tlingit language here and here.)