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Camp 2019, One In 87.5 Million

I was writing very quickly.

It’s time I introduced you to someone; his name is X’unei and he introduced himself on Saturday night to the assembled #ComicsCamp cohort in Tlingit.

He told us about himself, at some length, before generously repeating himself in English. He is a university professor, and has his hands in novels, poems, screenplays, filmmaking, music, visual arts, and oh yes — he is one of perhaps 80 people in the world that can speak Lingít Yoo X’Atángi. I am fond of quoting a cartoon cat that describes his expertise as being held by one dude or even none in a million, but in a world with 7 billion humans, X’unei is literally one in 87.5 million.

He has an English name, but he prefers X’unei, a name which is rooted in this language, this people, this place. Because of how time works in Tlingit (both language and worldview), he is not only X’unei, but he is every X’unei that has lived before and every X’unei that will live in the future¹.

So X’unei has seen 400 or so indigenous languages at the time of European contact dwindle to maybe 300, and will see perhaps another 100 lost in the next 50 years. There’s two dozen languages native to Alaska, and most of them are dying; he’s looking to the speakers that remain — many of whom are in their 80s — and wondering if the 130 or so people who are studying this one language — which may be 15,000 years old, born in the southwest near the Navajo, spread north into Canada, and then along the rivers and glaciers until it made its way back to the coast — can keep it alive.

He has so much to tell us about this place that we’ve found ourselves, about those who came to claim the land and called the Tlingit inferior because they don’t write things down; about the elder who countered that she can tell a story that takes ten days and it will always be the exact way that she wants to tell it.

So as not to make a terrible botch of things — I took a lot of notes, but I’m certain I missed more than I caught and I may very well have gotten details wrong here — I am going to spare you a lot of what X’unei taught us, and point you to Lingít Yoo X’Atángi, his online language resource.

You can hear the sounds of the language, there and on his YouTube channel, and you can learn about the 61 sounds you need to make in order to speak (26 of which are not in English), and the four vowels that each come with four variations (long vs short, high vs low). You can try to break yourself of the habit of up-talking to indicate uncertainty or a question, and try to get used to the fact that virtually all of the sounds are made behind the teeth² and a bunch of them require you to take your lungs out of the equation.

All of that? That’s the easy bit. Thinking in Tlingit is very different from thinking in English.

There’s a lot of metaphor³, and verbs classify based around whether or not they have happened yet. There’s a suffix that indicates a thing that performs an action (a ladder, a saw), a way to turn a verb into a noun. There are siblings that may be your kin, or any Tlingit of the same generation. The metaphors are more than a linguistic construct, they’re a way of thinking of the world, a way of looking at how things are and then describing your place within it4.

And the stories, always the stories. The story of how the Tlingit people came to their lands by passing under a glacier, about not speaking the word for the brown bear because they’ll come, about announcing your intentions at the edge of the forest before you enter to hunt or forage in the house of your grandparents. About the place names that are lost, about the true owners of this land who will take you away if you whistle at night unless you carry tobacco and copper with you, about the Salmon People who will teach you the value of the food you might disrespect. About how they know all these things happened, really happened. About how they tell the stories so they don’t forget.

And if you start to wonder if maybe there’s a few too many stories, then X’unei will tell you about the time he saw a youngster ask an elder How come every time I ask you a question you tell me a story? and was answered with Let me tell you a story about that….

We dipped out toes into a vast ocean, one that serves as a means to connect a people across past and future (and if X’unei is every X’unei ever or to be, then we who come to Tlingit lands are the same people who stole them, and hopefully the same people who will act to decolonize them). It was a gift freely given, and one that I will do my best to treat with the respect it deserves.

No other pictures today; if you can make out my scribbles in the photo up top, good on you.

¹ He told of meeting an elder who expressed that his own uncle had been named X’unei; afterwards, the elder referred to him as Uncle.

² What’s the hardest job in the world? Tlingit lip reader.

³ For example, there aren’t colors, per se, but there are comparisons to common things. One particular blue is the blue of a Stellar’s jay.

4 I think this relates to how X’unei said you might not name your kids for a week or so, because you have to see who they are. I’m guessing the ubiquitous Have you decided on names yet? ritual that parents-to-be go through around the seventh month are utterly alien to the Tlingit mindset.

I remember how amazed I was when I first read about these languages, and how they spread from what is now the Navajo area up north into Alaska rather than the other way around.

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