Stories

Luce Fellow Spotlight: X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell

“The [Luce Indigenous Knowledge] fellowship was really instrumental in helping me broaden my reach and my range,” says X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, Ph. D., about his Tlingit language revitalization work. “It gave me the time and space to get a lot of projects off my desk.”

X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell ( (Tlingit, Haida, Yupʼik, Sami) is among the first cohort of Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellows. He has dedicated much of his life to revitalizing the Tlingit language. He uses technology to reclaim and revitalize the Tlingit language.


In 2020, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), in partnership with the Henry Luce Foundation, awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to support Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship is a 12-month, self-directed enrichment program that provides fellows with the funding and connections necessary to maximize their potential and spark significant innovation and transformation in their communities.


Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow: X’UNEI LANCE TWITCHELL

X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell (Photo credit: University of Alaska Southeast)

Dr. Lance Twitchell (Tlingit and Haida) is among the first cohort of Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellows. An associate professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), Twitchell has dedicated his life to revitalizing the Tlingit language through teaching, curriculum development, publishing, television, art, and most importantly, community collaboration.

Twitchell has spent half his life working with Tlingit elders to learn, understand, and teach the endangered Tlingit language. Since 2004, he has initiated the language learning journey for hundreds of students from Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, and other places. In 2013 and 2014, he even worked with an Alaska Native team of language advocates to create and pass a bill that made Alaska Native languages the co-official languages of Alaska.

Over the past year, the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship has empowered Twitchell to continue revitalizing the Tlingit language.

“The fellowship was really instrumental in helping me broaden my reach and my range,” says Twitchell. “It gave me the time and space to get a lot of projects off my desk.”

These projects include expanding his website — a comprehensive archive of audio, video, textbooks, and linguistic research; self-publishing Tlingit language materials including a reference guide on Tlingit grammar and verbs; writing scripts for stage and television; and working on an art exhibit honoring Tlingit elders and language speakers.

Community Background and Impact

Twitchell carries the Tlingit names X̱’unei and Du Aaní Kawdinook, and the Haida name Ḵ’eijáakw. He lives in Juneau with his wife and bilingual children and is from the Tlingit, Haida, and Yupʼik nations.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is a tribal government representing over 32,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians worldwide. Tlingit and Haida people are the original occupants and guardians of southeast Alaska.

Language is key to preserving and perpetuating the Tlingit’s relationship with the land and each other. Unfortunately, Tlingit is an endangered language. There have not been birth speakers of Tlingit in more than half a century.

Twitchell has dedicated much of his life to reversing this trend, both in and outside the classroom. He often relied upon technology and innovative teaching methods to increase knowledge of and access to his beloved language and culture.

Language Revitalization and Technology

Even before COVID-19 forced many online, Twitchell had started using technology to reclaim and revitalize the Tlingit language. Many Tlingit communities are only accessible by boat or plane. For Twitchell, technology was a logical solution to addressing these geographic barriers.

In 2015, Twitchell began recording his Tlingit language classes at UAS and started posting them online free of charge. Online lessons include “Fundamental Concepts in Language Revitalization,” “Language Policy and Planning,” “Oral Traditions and Literacy,” and “Language Training and Strategies,” to name a few. To date, his videos have received more than 180,000 views on YouTube.

Twitchell has continued to record Tlingit language lessons and post them online during the pandemic. In summer 2020, he taught a free live Tlingit language course via Zoom five nights per week for five weeks in partnership with Outer Coast.

More than 640 people signed up for the course, including classes and activities for speakers of all levels. Such high-interest levels emphasize the significance and impact of Twitchell’s work. Twitchell says, “At one point, there were 150 people in a single class, which is amazing considering that only 30 people can really speak the language.”

Twitchell’s language revitalization work has had and will continue to impact his people and community profoundly. Over the past several years, the number of second language speakers have grown considerably due to collaborations between tribal elders and language teachers like Twitchell. Indeed, Twitchell’s university credits him with a 150 percent increase in the attendance of Alaska Native language classes.

Increasing Accessibility to Tlingit Language Materials

To enhance online Tlingit language courses, Twitchell has also started writing and publishing Tlingit language materials that could be used either in the classroom or for self-study. His goal is to publish high-quality, low-cost materials easily accessible to tribal members who wish to learn the language. Toward this goal, he has either self-published or uploaded his language materials online for free on his website.

During the fellowship period, Twitchell finalized and published Haa Wsineix Haa Yoo X’atángi = Our Language Saved Us: A Guidebook for Learning the Tlingit Language and Tlingit Reference Guide: Verbs, Grammar, Location & Direction Concepts. The Goldbelt Heritage Foundation published both guidebooks in spring/summer 2020.

In addition to being easily accessible, these language materials are also crucial for helping decolonize the Tlingit language. Tlingit is a traditionally oral language transcribed and mistranslated by amateur anthropologists and linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Twitchell’s long-term goal is to correct such mistranslations and counter them with a Tlingit language toolkit that is meaningful and relevant to his community.

“How can [this work] help shine a light on the paths that our ancestors have already made?” asks Twitchell. “How can we level up and do even more?”

Our Language is Encoded within Us

In addition to his language work, Twitchell is a multimedia artist who writes and produces screenplays for stage and television. In March 2020, shortly before everything closed for the pandemic, he helped stage the play Before the Land Eroded: I Was Once Here. The play is based on the real-life town of Newtok, Alaska, and the devastation caused to the local population by climate change.

He also wrote three episodes for Molly of Denali, a cartoon about 10-year-old Molly Mabray, an Athabascan girl. The series is the first nationally distributed children’s series in the U.S. to feature an Alaska Native lead character. One of the episodes premiered in March 2021, and the other episodes are scheduled to air in 2022 on PBS.

Twitchell worked on an art exhibit: Our Language is Encoded in Us at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The exhibit was featured in the Penn Museum Expedition Magazine, Vol. 63, Issue 2. The art display pairs pictures of tribal elders Twitchell worked with to learn the Tlingit language and words of wisdom and encouragement for future generations.

“Most of these elders are gone now, but their words keep coming through me when I’m teaching and when I’m thinking through the language,” says Twitchell.

This art exhibit allowed Twitchell to honor those elders and thank them for their commitment to preserving the language.

The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship is critical in supporting and funding more Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers like Twitchell. Indeed, Twitchell’s language revitalization work has already profoundly impacted his people and communities.

Over the past several years, the number of second language speakers have grown considerably due to collaborations between tribal elders and language teachers like Twitchell. He says, “We need more entities that recognize Indigenous excellence. When it comes to fellowships and other project grants, I’m just used to getting told no. Often, the work of Indigenous people isn’t [perceived] as important as the work of others, and so to have a fellowship that focuses on the work of Indigenous people is really important. It is going to have a wide impact on our communities.”

Visit www.tlingitlanguage.com to learn more about Twitchell and his language revitalization work.