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The many reverberations of colonialism: a Native American language facing extinction

October 20, 2017

 We tend to view colonialism in the past tense and to see it as an unfortunate precursor to our modern world. However, for many, colonialism is not something that died and went away, but something that shapes their entire world, especially when it comes to language. That is the lesson of a new paper entitled, “From the Logic of Elimination to the Logic of the Gift: Towards a Decolonial Theory of Tlingit Language Revitalization” by William Geiger, formerly of Alaska Pacific University, Dept. of Liberal Studies which has been published in Open Linguistics.
The Tlingit are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, with the majority living in Southeast Alaska. The article explains how they came to shift from speaking their own language, to only speaking English, and how this shift is connected to past and current colonialism.

Colonialism remains an active force in Southeast Alaska today, forming a singular obstacle to genuine language revitalization. Language revitalization, Geiger says, will require a strong dose of social, political, and ethical decolonization if it is to be achieved.

This process of colonization for the Tlingit has been brutally effective. In 1867, when the United States gained control of Alaska, one hundred percent of the Tlingit population were fluent in their own language, more recently, only one percent of the population is estimated to be fluent. This is directly the result of American colonial practices, and the author argues that a process of decolonization is necessary to save the language.

Geiger came to this realization through examining material on the social history, by researching the number of Tlingit speakers, and by examining critiques of colonialism by historians, sociologists, and philosophers. He also draws on his experiences with Tlingit elders, the very few fluent speakers of Tlingit, and people who are advocates for this language.

A troubling discovery is that while the language loss has remained constant throughout the past century and a half, it has become much more rapid recently. This continued language loss can be viewed as a symptom of the colonization that began in the past, and continues until the present. It is not only a result of the actions that were taken in the past, but is also the result of active present colonialism. This means that efforts to revive the language, are only one aspect of the greater process of de-colonialization.

The situation looks bleak, but a resurgence of the language, and with it of the culture is possible.  The revelation that Geiger has made, while stark, will help with language revitalization. An awareness of the pressure of colonialism, may help instructional language programs understand and address some of the underlying issues that work against the goal of producing fluent Tlingit speakers.

The paper is open access and can be read, for free, here:
https://doi.org/10.1515/opli-2017-0011

De Gruyter
Eric Merkel-Sobotta
Communications
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ems@degruyter.com