Schools, universities, and organizations throughout Indian country are working towards revitalizing endangered indigenous languages, but in Ketchikan, Alaska, it is the community that’s taking the lead. With the Site for Indigenous Languages reporting only 40 fluent Haida speakers in British Columbia, the pressure is on to save it.
Sunday afternoon gatherings, homemade videos and Google Hangouts are the focus of this Ketchikan community’s efforts. Linda Schrack is one of the Ketchikan language warriors, teaching classes in Ketchikan and learning to make videos with her niece Susie Edwardson.
Edwardson and Schrack started making videos after taking a class with Haida language activist Ben Young in 2011. “There may be other students making those kinds of videos, but they are not making others as aware as Susie is, or making their videos so accessible,” Young said. “They remind me of the Vine videos that are short, but make a lasting impression. There’s a little humor and she makes learning enjoyable.”
Schrack, Young, Edwardson and her parents Robert and Sandy, Emily Edenshaw-Chafin, Irene Gallion, Jordan Edwardson, and Della Cheney are simply doing what they must to keep the language going. “There are Native organizations and tribal entities and they have their own stuff going on, but you can’t always get what you want or need,” Schrack said. “We just figured if we can’t get any support, let’s just keep on doing what we are doing, because nobody else is going to do it. We just kind of made a pact that we just have to keep doing this.”
Edwardson graduated from the University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau, where her Haida Language videos were further inspired. In Juneau, the primary focus of language revitalization is Tlingit. With only three Haida speakers in Juneau, her goal was to create videos where people can hear the language being spoken and have opportunities to practice.
More communication means a stronger Native community, Edwardson said. Making the videos enabled Edwardson to maintain her Haida connections, even when she was attending college in land-locked Juneau. Growing up in the military, she said, “I wasn’t really connected to the Haida culture, except maybe a week or two every year when we went to Ketchikan for vacation or celebration. I could never do my dance group because we were moving so much. It made me really strive to come back to Alaska and learn my culture and language, and perpetuate it.”
While at UAS, she studied with Professor Lance Twitchell, who records Tlingit elders, and encourages students to create their own videos. His language classes are posted on his YouTube channel, and he utilizes Google Hangouts to create a place where students can be linked together to speak and hear the language.
“We have a lot of plans in place to hold activities and to try to transform our communities. Last year we took about 35 students to a grocery store where we shopped for two hours in the language. You can get people to understand the language, but getting them to speak when they see each other is the biggest hurdle,” Twitchell said.
That is exactly what Edwardson is trying to achieve with her videos. “What I have noticed that she does is a lesson we could all learn from,” Young said. “As soon as she learns something and masters it, even bits and pieces or a phrase, she turns around and immediately makes it available to everyone else. In endangered language learning, that is very important. That’s what you tell your students, and that’s kind of what you learn to live by. It helps you retain it better.”
When Edwardson saw the kind of work that Twitchell was doing with Tlingit, she started making videos for her Haida community in Ketchikan. “Susie’s videos are very fun and very energetic,” Twitchell said, noting that students are often motivated by the videos of elders. “You talk to the kids and tell them, ‘You need to learn the language to find out what your grandma was trying to tell you, and they take on some material to translate.”
Schrack said collecting the Haida language on audio tapes has been going on since the mid-70s. “We have some recordings from back then, but then there were many years nothing took place,” she said.
In 2003, Schrack began documenting the language and taking more classes to improve her proficiency in the language. “It is a big challenge because there aren’t too many people doing that kind of work and it can get really overwhelming,” Schrack said. “The group of us who are working on documentation and the new video project, we work really well together, and now we are trying to figure out how to get more people interested in helping us with this important work.”
One of Schrack’s projects has involved teaching families with young children. “I go into their home, teaching them basic daily phrases in Haida they can use in the home and make CDs for them; and they like to have it in writing, too,” she said.
Her efforts are paying off, as the oldest of the children, a 4-year-old, has been incorporating Haida phrases into her language outside of the home. “It doesn’t seem like much, but with the state of our language, if we can just get people to use a little to start and build upon that, we’ll be doing good,” Schrack said.
Edwardson said she is “grateful for our ancestors, my Haida language teacher’s Ben and Linda, and my advisors and mentors.” Her continuing goal is to develop videos to promote language and create a stronger Native community. “We are so spread out, especially in Alaska. I’ve connected with a few people who are into language revitalization throughout the U.S., because of the videos. I never would have met them otherwise. It’s just awesome to see, and my hope is more people will make them.”