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Language is a prism through which we interpret our world. It’s a critical framework upon which we build our relationships, expectations, dreams and identity.
In Ketchikan, that’s a truth that is brought into the light by the shrinking presence of Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit language speakers.
You need just one finger to count the number of fluent speakers of the Tsimshian language in Ketchikan.
The Daily News recently covered the work of 93-year-old John Reese, who, along with language apprentice Terri Burr, has been teaching Shm’algyack — the Tsimshian language — at the Ketchikan Public Library.
It’s important work for forging — in this case, reclaiming might be a better word — a cultural identity.
Through the Ketchikan Indian Community, classes also have been taught on Lingít, the Tlingit language, and Xaat Kíl, the Haida language.
It’s a small but encouraging step, considering that Alaska Native children were once punished — sometimes physically — for speaking their language at school.
Also encouraging: The 2014 passage of state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ bill making 20 Native languages official languages of the State of Alaska.
Proposed legislation in the state House and Senate that would grow Native language charter schools and language immersion programs, introduced by Kreiss-Tomkins in the House and Sen. Donny Olson in the Senate during the last session, is a valuable idea that the Legislature should pass.
There are opportunities to take learning into your own hands rather than wait for the Legislature to come through, however:
• Those interested in learning more about KIC’s language programs or downloading audio resources can visit http://kictribe.org/programs/chas/language/index.html.
• Haida language resources and information are available at: http://www.haidalanguage.org/.
• A Tlingit dictionary can be found online at: http://www.alaskool.org/language/dictionaries/akn/startdictionary.asp.
• The Alaska Native Language Center offers an impressive overview of online resources for 20 Alaska Native languages at: https://www.uaf.edu/anlc/languages/.
The Alaska Native Language Center also offers an estimate on the number of fluent speakers left in Alaska, and the numbers are sobering. There were an estimated 30 coastal Tsimshian language speakers in 2007, an estimated 10 northern Haida language speakers in 2007, and an estimated 175 Tlingit language speakers in 2013.
While the numbers are bleak, the act of learning about one’s heritage is inherently fun, and there are resources available online for those who want to explore.