JUNEAU, Alaska - A basketball camp in Juneau is about more than the sport itself. It's about revitalizing the Tlingit language.
The Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsors the summer camps each year to help youngsters learn Tlingit. Linguists say there are fewer than 150 native Tlingit speakers alive today, Juneau radio station KTOO (http://is.gd/mFMzxa) reported.
On the first day of camp last week, a dozen middle and high school students participated on the basketball court at the University of Alaska Southeast.
As the students stretched, Jessica Chester counted to 10 in Tlingit. Chester, who teaches Alaska Native languages for the Juneau School District, has been helping out with the basketball camps since 2006.
Chester said all of the basketball drills incorporate some Tlingit.
"You know, if they're saying, 'Go get a ball,' I'm going to be behind the coach saying 'kooch'eit'aa. . .' You know, go get a ball in Tlingit," she said.
Chester, originally from Yakutat, began studying Tlingit in college. She grew up hearing elders speak the language.
"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," she said.
Alaska is only the second state behind Hawaii to recognize indigenous languages. Gov. Sean Parnell is expected to sign a bill passed earlier this year that designates 20 Alaska Native languages as official state languages.
Supporters hope the action will help boost efforts to revitalize those languages. The institute decided to make language preservation its top priority about 15 years ago. The inspiration came after meeting with a group of Hawaii language preservationists, according to the institute's president, Rosita Worl. Indigenous languages were officially recognized by the state of Hawaii in 1978.
"We looked at their programs," Worl said. "And I will tell you, our board of trustees started to cry, because they saw little children speaking the Hawaiian language. And they said, 'If the Hawaiians can do that, we can do that.'"
At the Juneau basketball camp, 16-year-old Jaime Kelley-Paul said he's not even that interested in sports. He wants to build up the Alaska Native pride.
"It's my culture. I love it," Kelley-Paul said. "It's fun to learn about it. It's important to keep our culture alive instead of just being one type of person."
Information from: KTOO-FM, http://www.ktoo.org