At Language Camp, Reclaiming Tradition Is Between Basketball And Lunch

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Alaska has become the second state, after Hawaii, to recognize indigenous languages as official state languages. Supporters hope this will help revitalize those languages, many of which have just a handful native speakers left. Casey Kelly of KTOO reports on one such effort: a kids' basketball camp, where drills are combined with Tlingit language lessons.

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Alaska has become the second state after Hawaii to officially recognize indigenous languages. Supporters hope the measure would revitalize the languages. In some cases, only a handful of native speakers are left. From member station KTOO in Juneau, Casey Kelly takes us to a camp that's using sport to keep native culture alive.

CASEY KELLY, BYLINE: On the basketball court at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau a dozen middle and high school students are warming up for their first day of camp. As they stretch near half court Jessica Chester counts to 10 in Tlingit.

JESSICA CHESTER: (Foreign language spoken).

KELLY: Chester teaches Alaska native languages for the Juneau school district. She's been helping out with Sealaska Heritage Institute's summer basketball camp since 2006. Chester says, all of the drills incorporate at least some Tlingit.

CHESTER: You know, if they're saying, go get a ball. I'm going to be behind the coach saying (foreign language spoken), you know, go get a ball in Tlingit.

KELLY: Chester grew up hearing elders speak the language and began studying it herself in college.

CHESTER: Languages carry the ideas and the feelings and the emotions and thoughts of a culture of a people and so bringing that back is real important to me.

KELLY: Linguists say fewer than 150 native Tlingit speakers are alive today. Some Alaska indigenous languages have no remaining native speakers, they exist only in written form or as recordings. Sealaska's President, Rosita Worl, says many Alaskan natives grew up ashamed of their languages and traditions.

ROSITA WORL: We've had a policy and history in this country to suppress native languages and suppress native culture.

KELLY: About 15 years ago, the Heritage Institute decided to make language preservation its top priority. In fact it lobbied for recognition of native languages as official state languages. Worl says, inspiration came after meeting with a group of Hawaiian language preservationists. That state officially recognized indigenous languages in 1978.

WORL: We looked at their programs and I will tell you our Board of Trustees started to cry because they saw little children speaking Hawaiian language and they said, if the Hawaiians can do that we can do that.

KELLY: Now that native languages have official recognition in Alaska efforts like this camp are expected to grow. Worl says, she no longer worries about the Tlingit language becoming extinct.

WORL: It may be that it will never be spoken as a first language but we have always said, that you'll be hearing the voices of our ancestors through our children.

KELLY: Back at camp, counselors run the kids through a series of basketball and language drills.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 1: Front pivot.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken).

MAN # 1: Reverse pivot.

CHILDREN: (Foreign language spoken).

KELLY: Michel Martin's daughter and son are attending the camp for the third time. Martin's from the Tlingit village of Hoonah where she picked up some of the language from her grandparents. She says, her kids already speak it better than she does.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I can understand phrases and I know what they're saying and I try to learn and I'm like, oh, my gosh I need to go back and learn some more.

KELLY: Most of the kids say, they were initially hooked because of the basketball but keep coming to learn their language. Sixteen-year-old Jaime Kelley-Paul says he's not even that interested in sports, instead he wants to build up the Alaskan native pride that was almost lost.

JAIME KELLEY-PAUL: It's my culture. I love it. It's fun to learn about it. It's important to keep our culture alive instead of just everyone being one type of person.

KELLY: Kelly Paul says, he can't wait to teach his little brother everything he learned about Tlingit language and culture once he gets home. For NPR News, I'm Casey Kelly in Juneau.

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