Report paints grim picture about Alaska Native language fluency, but hope remains

 (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)
(AP Photo/Al Grillo, File) (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 3, 2020 at 8:02 PM AKST
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Six Alaska Native Languages have five or fewer remaining speakers who are considered “highly proficient” in the language, according to a new report by the Alaska Native Languages Preservation Advisory Council.

The estimates were included for the first time in the biennial report, released on Jan. 1, but researchers had a sense that languages were in trouble. Still, those low numbers would have been unimaginable just a generation ago.

Roy Mitchell, a research analyst for the state of Alaska who helped compose the report, said that the late great linguist of Alaska Native languages Michael Krauss was once considered a pessimist for a prediction he made in 1980.

“He said because the formal punishment of kids in schools for speaking was over, that those languages that still, according to what he could figure out still had children who spoke it, those languages were still safe,” said Mitchell, “At the time, he was ripped North South and sideways for being so pessimistic.”

Now with so many languages with just a handful of speakers, and many more with just hundreds, that estimate seems bright-eyed, both in Alaska and on a worldwide scale. The estimated 7,000 languages left worldwide are being lost faster than species as the world appears to be convalescing around just a handful of major languages, including English.

Even for some Alaska Native languages with a relatively vibrant population of speakers, there could be trouble ahead. Central Yupik is estimated to have as many as 10,000 speakers in the report, but that could be a stretch.

“We put in there less than 10,000, but does that mean there's 9,500 or does that mean there's 5,000 speakers? And honestly we have no clue,” said Mitchell, who added that he is hoping to improve on current estimates.

The village of Anvik where Deg Hit'an was traditionally spoken. Now there are just two speakers of the language left in Alaska considered "highly proficient." (Photo from Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Photo Library)

That’s not to say communities aren’t trying. The Hän Gwich'in language spoken in Eagle Village is listed in the report as having just a few speakers left in Alaska, with another handful on the Canadian side of the border.

First Chief Karma Ulvi says for her small community of speakers, the trauma of language loss runs deep. Her mother and two sisters are some of the last speakers of the language, but Ulvi was never taught the language, something that she feels very closely when she watches her mother and sisters talk.

“When they speak, things are their stories are way richer and funnier and you can just tell that they have so much fun when they speak in the language. And we don't get that because we can't speak in the language,” she said.

As the Chief of Eagle Village, language preservation has been a major priority, with recording and gaining literacy at the forefront of the agenda. That means completing a dictionary of all of the known words of the language, and holding events to get speakers together from both sides of the border.

In between her roles as a health aid and working for the tribe, Ulvi is running into simple resource constraints. Researchers have gotten grant money from the National Science Foundation to complete the dictionary, but that funding has since run out and Ulvi says she's not not sure if it will be renewed. Several other small grants have helped to organize get-togethers of language speakers, but there is a clear lack of resources.

Still, there have been successes, albeit limited. She says she thinks the era of stigmatization of languages - the days her mother and aunts experienced - are gone.

“I think it's over. I think so many kids really want to learn, now it’s just the time (that’s lacking),” she said.

Thanks to previous generations of elders, for example, there are plenty of books in Hän in the village, but there is only one person - Ulvi’s aunt - who is able to read the language. Literacy has thus become a primary goal of Eagle Village’s efforts.

“There's some words that have many different meanings, and then there's like 4,000 verbs, so if you don't really know how to break the words down you don’t get very far,” she said.

For other language learners, the battle to preserve languages looks a bit different. The Inupiaq language, spoken along the coast of Northern and Northwest Alaska, is estimated to fewer than 2,500 speakers, but young Inupiat - as well as other interest students - have taken up the cause of language revitalization with next to no resources.

“I think it really is a testament to the time that we're living in that people are very eager to be part of that process of waking up and sustaining our cultures,” said Qunmiġu, whose English name is Kacey Hopson.

Hopson is part of the Iḷisaqativut collective, which was cited in the ANLPAC report as a “shining light” of language revitalization. In between lessons at an experimental three-day long self-organized camp at the Alaska Native Language Heritage Center in Anchorage, organizers explain that the movement began organically after a meeting at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference.

There, Qiġñaaq Cordelia Kellie who is Inupiaq, and a friend Reid Paałuk Magdanz, had a realization that they were both trying to learn Inupiaq, but just from books, apps, and other media that wasn’t giving them a full picture of the language. They also realized that they both had lots of friends who wanted to learn but lacked a community of learners, so they decided on a format of hosting a two-week long camp at least once a year to get Inupiaq students together.

Participants at a 2018 Iḷisaqativut event in Nome. (Photo courtesy of Cordelia Kellie)

“It's very hard to make a language feel real in your own room when you're reading a grammar book, and you need a community to bring the language alive and because it's relational, it's contextual, you have to use it with people,” explained Hopson.

So far, they’ve been astounded by the support and enthusiasm, with dozens of like-minded students coming to their camps, held in urban and Inupiaq communities around Alaska since 2017. Aside from raising money for stipends for elder attendees, the group has few costs, thanks to the generosity of communities they work in.

“People across the state and in all our communities are - when you go home and tell them you're working on language, people are excited and encouraging and say they want to learn, and that tells me that we're doing something that's important to people,” said Magdanz.

Participants are aware that the positive response they are receiving is new. Previous generations were punished for speaking their languages in schools: hit on the knuckles, or made stand for hours with their nose on the chalkboard.

“One elder told me, ‘I grew up speaking my language, and then they said, don't speak your language and now they tell me to speak my language, make up your mind!’” said Kellie.

Now, the group says that society is in a place it’s never been before where languages are accepted and promoted, albeit sometimes not as much as it could be.

But more than language fluency, the participants say they are working together on healing the cultural loss their families experienced.

Hopson says that along with fellow language learners, she’s been able to come to terms with her family’s history with the trauma.

“It creates a space where I was able to process and work through a lot of the internal blocks that I had with learning the language that was very much connected to my family history and the history of the state,” she said.

But she also emphasized that the burden of reversing language eradication is a heavy one to be placed solely on indigenous people.

“This is not just a Native problem or a Native issue,” said Hopson, “It's our collective responsibility to bring these languages back.”

Whether that will happen depends in part on the state government. The ANLPAC report recommends to the legislature and the governor several actions to take, including more funding for immersion schools, the renaming of places around Alaska with their Native names, and a declaration of preserving Alaska Native languages as an official state policy.

A spokesman for the governor says his office is currently reviewing the report and will comment further once the review is complete.

But just as much as any government policy, the success of languages will depend on the community’s willingness to embrace the languages that were spoken on Alaska land.

Magdanz, who grew up in Kotzebue, said learning the language in some sense is matter of common courtesy.

He compares it to traveling to a different country and forcing somebody to learn your language to communicate.

"You don't make everybody else speak English...well, some people do,” he jokes.

But more importantly, languages help understand the place you are living.

“Most Native languages they're so based in the land they grew up in and so descriptive about the land, so it's really really cool learn a language that was designed for the place you are living in,” he says.

Qiġñaaq Cordelia Kellie with an elder at an Iḷisaqativut camp. (Photo courtesy of Cordelia Kellie)

This story has been updated to include a response from the governor's office.
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