Tlingit speakers travelling to 'historic' gathering in Alaska in effort to preserve language

Speakers of the Tlingit language will be meeting in Alaska at a conference that is the first of its kind. People who speak different dialects of the same language will discuss ways to preserve and strengthen their culture.

'It's more vital that we get together now and we start working together to save our precious Tlingit language'

Wooden totems represent the different moieties, or clans, of the Teslin Tlingit Council in Teslin, Yukon. The First Nation is preparing to send delegates to a conference in Juneau, Alaska, to help preserve the Tlingit language. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Speakers of Tlingit are preparing for what they're calling a historic conference in Alaska. 

It will be a rare occasion to have a room full of people speaking the language.

Fewer than 200 people speak Tlingit around the world, with speakers spread across different communities in the United States and Canada. 

The meeting means a lot to Duane Gastant Aucoin, the chair of the language and culture oversight committee with the Teslin Tlingit Council in Teslin, Yukon. 

"This is the first time coming together of all our fluent speakers." he said.

"We don't have that many left and so this is more important than ever. It's more vital that we get together now and we start working together to save our precious Tlingit language." 

There's no American Tlingit, there's no Canadian Tlingit. Those aren't our borders.- Duane Gastant   Aucoin ,  Teslin Tlingit Council

Historic connections

The Native language summit, taking place in Juneau Nov. 13-15, is expected to draw Tlingit speakers from ​Teslin and Carcross in the Yukon, as well as Atlin, B.C, and Alaska. It's hosted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit group that works to preserve Southeast Alaskan Native culture. It's welcoming speakers of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

Aucoin says there has been a historic connection between Tlingit people who reside in the areas that are now part of Yukon, B.C. and Alaska. 

He says the different groups can understand each other despite regional dialects. 

"There might be some words that are different, or structure that's a little different, but a fluent speaker from both places can understand what the other is saying," he said.

Steps towards language revitalisation are 'more important than ever' says Duane Gastant Aucoin, chair of the language and culture oversight committee with the Teslin Tlingit Council. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"There's no American Tlingit, there's no Canadian Tlingit. Those aren't our borders."

Aucoin says more than 30 people could be attending from Yukon.  

The summit comes less than two months after the Alaska governor declared a state of emergency for Indigenous languages. Gov. Bill Walker signed a bill to strengthen language education and encourage measures such as using local languages on place names and public signs. 

Efforts to preserve and strengthen the Tlingit language in Yukon already include classes for pre-school children in Carcross. In Teslin, the Tlingit Council passed a Language and Culture Act in 2017, making Tlingit the official language for the government and the community. 

Aucoin says work is happening now to develop an implementation plan to bring that act to life. 

Tlingit-language material has been archived and organized online by the Yukon Native Language Centre. (Yukon Native Language Centre)

With files from the Canadian Press