BBNC Education Foundation's cultural program centers on revitalizing Native languages for the long term
Bristol Bay’s Native languages — Yup’ik, Alutiiq and Dena’ina — are thousands of years old, and carry with them distinct worldviews.
“You have 10,000 years’ worth of knowledge, multiple generations that go from astronomy, to ecology, interactions between people, and spirituality,” said Kay Larson-Blair, director of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s Education Foundation Cultural Heritage Program.
At the Bristol Bay Sustainability Summit last month in Dillingham, Larson-Blair said that the Native corporation’s education foundation plans to focus on the intersection between education and culture. The cultural heritage program will help them do so, as part of a 10-year plan started in 2021.
“The foundation will not only work in, but value, our cultural ways of knowing, doing and being at the same time as our western focus with [academic] scholarships,” she said.
Language revitalization is a central part of that commitment. So far, the cultural heritage program has funded language workshops, immersion programs and short-term classes in several Bristol Bay communities, including Igiugig, Pedro Bay and Manokotak.
But language remains a primary concern for over 85% of the Native corporation’s member tribes. Specifically, communities saw a need for language access in the form of learning and preservation, especially as they aim to restore resources lost due to years of colonization.
The U.S. government, schools and churches systematically suppressed Native languages, often using violence and intimidation through the 20th century.
Yup’ik is considered a “vulnerable” language by the Endangered Language Project classification system. It has about 10,000 speakers, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Native Languages center. About 400 people speak Alutiiq, and around 50 speak Dena'ina. Alutiiq is considered “severely” endangered, meaning only elders speak fluently and Dena’ina is “critically” endangered, which means most elders do not speak the language fluently.
Revitalization requires fluent educators and the opportunity to integrate the language into everyday life. For many Alaska Native communities, there are relatively few speakers. Typical classroom settings — the most common way to learn languages — can cost thousands of dollars, and learning in class doesn’t always translate well in practice.
Larson-Blair said Western-style classes can also require students to take on a “mental load,” as they are tested on their own culture’s language.
“Getting graded to take your own [language] class and getting a low grade, it's not going to feel great,” she said.
Of course, classes aren’t the only way to learn. Along with funding community efforts, the foundation hopes to one day help establish apprenticeship programs. Blair said it’s another way to help train a generation of fluent educators.
The foundation's 10-year strategic plan includes efforts to partner with other organizations to ensure that people have access to Bristol Bay's Native languages. One idea Larson-Blair mentioned was immersion schools for Alutiiq, Yup'ik and Dena'ina, though there aren't any plans for that right now.
"Where kids can go learn English, math, science, and get a degree but do it in their own language,” she said.
For Larson-Blair, building up Native languages isn’t out of reach.
“Language revitalization just takes one person that's really motivated and really cares,” she said. “We have so many people in our region that are so excited about language, and we have speakers that are still here. So it's something that's doable.”
Aside from planning for the long term, BBNC's education foundation also offers immersive language learning and culture camps, which will be held on Iliamna Lake this summer.
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Correction: The entity is the BBNC's education foundation, not BBNC.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include additional information about the program's 10-year plan to revitalize languages.