Yup'ik teachers from Bristol Bay reflect on Alaska Native Language Revitalization Institute

Jul 16, 2018

This spring, the Alaska legislature asked the governor's office to declare a state of emergency for 20 Alaska Native languages. Two participants of an Indigenous language workshop talked to KDLG about challenges of revitalizing language in Yup’ik-speaking regions.

Evelyn Yanez of the University of Alaska Fairbanks teaching Unglu, Igiugig's Yup'ik immersion pre-kindergarten.
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

Arnaq Esther Ilutsik and her daughter, Atkiq Michelle Ilutsik Snyder, attended a four-day language institute at UAF in May, which coincided with the Alaska legislature’s April declaration of a linguistic emergency for Alaska Native languages. Michelle is a doctorate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in their Indigenous Studies program.

Esther is the Director of Yup’ik studies at Southwest Region Schools. She said that the sheer number of languages in Alaska present a particular challenge because they are spread across many regions with different needs. This is mirrored in Yup’ik-speaking regions.

“We have such a huge region that there are three different parts," she said. "There’s the northern Yup’ik, off the Yukon River. There’s the Kuskokwim Yup’ik, which is more central, and they’re the strongest speakers of the central Yup’ik language. And then there’s the Bristol Bay area, where we’re the weakest link. We have a lot to do to strengthen our own languages within our communities.”

At the workshop, two delegations – from Hawai’i and the Mohawk Nation – discussed efforts to revitalize and sustain their communities’ Native languages with over one hundred attendees. The workshop also addressed the historical trauma some associate with Indigenous language, one result of the boarding schools many Alaska Native children were forced to attend until the 1970s.

“Language and culture were not allowed in the schools until the 1970s. 'Til the 1970s. When my late father, in the 1930s, George H. Ilutsik, went to school – he hardly went to school because he was a reindeer herder – but during that time he was learning English. And he was learning the American holidays. And they were disregarding their own celebrations.”

Even after Yup’ik was reintroduced in schools, Esther said that it was taught through an English lens.

“We didn’t practice our own celebrations," she said. "So going to school, we didn't have anything about our culture or language within the school. We were punished for speaking our language. So in the 1970s they said, ‘Yes, it’s OK to teach the language and culture in the school. But in that time, when they first created the materials, the materials were based on things that were taught in English, like ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star.’ ‘Oh we can translate that!’”

According to Esther and Michelle, teaching Yup’ik through English, rather than through Yup’ik is a problem. And public platforms like radio can provide the public with conversation that shows how the language flows. John Active produced and hosted a Yup’ik show on KYUK starting in the 1970s. He passed away shortly after his retirement in April.

“He wanted to ensure that his Yup’ik elders understood what was going on in the world," Esther said. "That was his first motivation. But then you read and hear a lot of the stories that he shares, and that’s the grounding: our Yup’ik foundation."

"I think it’s really important that we acknowledge the language of the place that we are living in," Michelle added. "For us living here in Dillingham and in this region, it’s Yup’ik. Yup’ik people have been living here since time immemorial. And for so long we’ve been expected to assimilate [or] function through English, we've been expected to function in an English-speaking world. And there’s been no consideration for those whose first language is Yup’ik, who'd like to continue to speak Yup’ik. There has been nothing available for them.”     

One of the biggest roadblocks to building a framework for language revitalization, according to Esther, is a lack of basic platforms needed to begin.

“I think one of the things that we really need to look at is community engagement. One of the Hawai’ians said, ‘It is the responsibility of the schools to bring our language back.’ It is the schools’ responsibility to bring our language back to our communities, but we also need community engagement.”

She said that when communities are involved, language has a foundation to grow.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.