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Language Revitalization Stars Spearhead New Committee

Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Southeast Regional Language Committee will steer the new Haa Shuká Community Language Learning Project, which is the institute’s latest language revitalization effort.
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Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Southeast Regional Language Committee met for the first time on January 27, and began the meeting with traditional introductions by the committee’s three members: Lance Twitchell, who spoke in Lingít (Tlingit language), Gavin Hudson, who spoke in Sm’algyax (Tsimshian language), and Benjamin Young, who spoke in Xaad Kíl (Haida language). Hearing them express themselves in Southeast Alaska’s indigenous languages was an uplifting way to begin, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“It is like music to my ears to hear you speak,” Worl said in a press release. “It is so wonderful. (Tlingit elders) Dr. Soboleff and Clarence Jackson would be so happy to hear the voices of our ancestors speaking at this time.”

At the meeting, the committee members said they are excited about working together to revitalize the languages. Hudson said this in Sm’algyax earlier in the week: “Adziksa g̱oodu nwil sila luwaayda Gididg̱aniitsk ada Haida sila luwanm a xsoo gwa̱’a̱ (I am proud to paddle with the Tlingit and Haida peoples who are with us in this canoe). Naan dza sag̱ayt hakhałelsm dip dm sag̱a̱tgyeda na al’algyag̱m. (Let’s work together to make our languages strong.)”

In the press release, Worl said the formation of this committee marks an important milestone for Sealaska Heritage Institute’s language revitalization efforts. The Southeast Regional Language Committee will help steer the new Haa Shuká Community Language Learning Project. When SHI began its language revitalization efforts 20 years ago, the Southeast’s indigenous languages were described as “moribund,” or death-bound. SHI rejected that label, even though some elders were reluctant to pass the language on after being traumatized.

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“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have a committee from the beginning,” Worl said in the release. “We spent the first decade trying to figure out, ‘How are we going to teach our languages?’ The traditional methods weren’t working. We really didn’t know everything we were supposed to do, but we had the sense that it needed to be community based.”

She said their language programs have come a long way since then, and have been supported by dedicated young learners, as well as being inspired by Native Hawaiian speakers.

The Haa Shuká Community Language Learning Project has been funded by a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, and it will pair fluent speakers of Lingít, Xaad Kíl and Sm’algyax with intermediate and advanced speakers in the communities of Metlakatla, Hydaburg, Sitka and Juneau. SHI plans to organize language events monthly and biannual immersion retreats in each of the partner communities that will also be open to the public.

The Southeast Regional Language Committee will provide guidance to the language teams and help integrate the Haa Shuká Community Language Learning Project with existing initiatives. The three committee members have made significant contributions to language revitalization efforts already. Read more about them on the Sealaska Heritage Institute website.