Class Opens Door To Learning Tlingit

Category: Local News
Created on Tuesday, 14 July 2020 15:39

Sentinel Staff Writer

For X’unei Twitchell, the purpose of presenting an open online course on the Tlingit language was to make it as accessible as possible.

The course is now underway, and a sign-up of 643 learners is evidence of its accessibility.

But students who are serious about learning the language will still need to dedicate their own time and attentiveness to the language, Twitchell said.

“Indigenous languages require changing your life patterns,” Twitchell told the Sentinel. “I tell students, ‘if you don’t speak Tlingit now, and you want to, you cannot be the same person – you cannot live the same life.’”

The class is provided by Outer Coast, the fledgling Sitka-based college startup, in a new academic format called MOOC -- Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs (pronounced mooks) are being employed by colleges across the country, who are teaching courses on every subject in an online, structured format. 

In this screenshot X'unei Twitchell, upper right, leads an online course on the Tlingit language. (Photo Provided)

Outer Coast has provided in-person community Tlingit classes the past two summers and decided to host a MOOC this year after moving its summer seminar to an online venue.

Registration for the class, open to all, is available at Other free resources and teaching materials can be found at

“We have participants from Sitka, across Southeast, across the state, and from the Lower 48,” said Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, executive director of Outer Coast.

Participants are Native Alaskan elders, state legislators, and people with no previous Tlingit language experience.

Twitchell said that even though a life change is necessary to commit to Native languages, free Tlingit classes can help reintroduce the language as important to the general public.

“(It’s hard to say), ‘come here and pay for your language,’” he said, adding that it’s helpful to instead incentivize learning Tlingit and other Native languages.

“There has to be some other way where it becomes part of the social fabric to offer this for free,” he said, “(or) to encourage people to be there and to say, ‘Hey, if you become a speaker you’re going to get cash or certification or higher pay.’”

Anna Clock, who is coordinating the MOOC, is proof that a passion for Native languages can lead to a career path.

“I used to work on tugboats in Prince William Sound and when I turned 30, I said, ‘I’m going to quit and try to go back to school and try to build a pathway of working on our languages,”’ Clock said in an interview.

Clock is Koyukon Athabascan from Kaltag and Eyak from Orca, near Cordova. She began learning Tlingit at UAS Juneau, three years ago.

She said when she left the tugboats, people questioned how she would make money from a knowledge of Native languages.

So far, Clock has done exactly that, coordinating the MOOC for Outer Coast.

“I feel super fortunate to be able to work promoting our languages and reviving our languages and still making money while I’m doing it,” she said.

Clock began learning Tlingit in part because UAS Juneau was offering classes. The university’s Fairbanks campus, where Clock would have taken courses in Denaakk’e, was not offering the Koyukon Athabascan language that year.

“I thought, ‘I’ll go where the classes are,’” Clock said.

She said learning Tlingit before learning her own language has been an important experience.

“The beauty of learning Tlingit before learning my own language is that I got to experience all the joy of it and all the fun without having any harmful experiences,” she said. “It wasn’t so close to home (and so close to) the trauma that’s involved in the intergenerational healing that needs to happen.”

She hopes the model Outer Coast and Twitchell are developing can be used in Denaakk’e revitalization efforts, as well.

“I’m excited to see something like this happening,” she said. “I hope a similar program can be created or that I can help create one for my own language in the Interior ... because it makes language so accessible.”