Thanks to the passage and recent signing of House Bill 216 in October, 20 Alaska Native languages are now official languages statewide. The Native languages include Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Alaska is only the second state, after Hawaii, to officially recognize indigenous languages. During the signing of the bill, Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast said, “Our language is everything. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the blood that flows through our veins.” He added, “Studies have shown that if a village can reach 50-percent proficiency in their own language the suicide rate drops to zero. So, today we do this for our grandchildren, we do this for our ancestors.”
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. This means there are 7,000 different collections of sounds and symbols developed by groups of people that uniquely describe their daily lives, surroundings, emotions and experiences. These languages pass on knowledge, culture and tradition to future generations. However, many languages have disappeared rapidly during the past century. The loss of a language represents the loss of a community’s cultural heritage. About 90 percent of all existing languages are in danger of becoming extinct within the next one hundred years.
Fortunately, the Alaska Native Language Center, the Doyon Foundation, the Native Cultural Center, the First Alaskans Institute and many others are working to preserve Alaska’s Native languages.
The Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) was established in 1972 as a center to conduct research and on the Native languages of Alaska. ANLC publishes its research in story collections, dictionaries, grammars, and research papers. The Center has a collection of more than 10,000 items on Alaska Native languages. Staff members provide materials for bilingual teachers and other language workers throughout the state. The staff also participates in teaching through the Alaska Native Language Program, which offers major and minor degrees in Central Yup’ik and Inupiaq Eskimo at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. An associate’s degree or a Certificate in Native Language Education is also available.
In 2009, Doyon Foundation created a language revitalization committee to respond to the rapidly decreasing health of creative and fluent Native language speakers. Three years later, Doyon, Limited awarded start-up funding to establish a language revitalization program. According to Malinda Chase, Program Director, the program is not intended to replace the current efforts of tribes, groups or organizations across the region or state, but rather to collaborate with and bring them together. The immediate goals of the program are:
- Expand the organizational capacity of Doyon Foundation to effectively and efficiently develop, implement and sustain a Native language revitalization program.
- Develop a language revitalization program that will ensure the cultures and languages of the Doyon region are taught, documented and easily accessible.
The Applied Linguistics program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is partnering with the Lower Kuskokwim and Lower Yukon School Districts to create educational materials in Yup’ik. The materials are used to provide training for teachers, implement lesson plans and evaluate their impact on students learning outcomes, and to develop capacity for local leadership and control in language programming. Any materials created through this collaboration are distributed through the school districts and the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum and Cultural Center in Bethel.
Preserving the Yup’ik Language has always been a part of the curriculum among RurAL CAP’s Head Start sites in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region. Children in Head Start classrooms engage in cultural activities taught by RurAL CAP’s Yup’ik speaking staff. During circle time, children and teachers sing songs, recite the alphabet, and use common phrases in their Native language. At the beginning of each school year, many communities host a Head Start planning meeting that is open to all community members. During this meeting parents and community members discuss and formalize how Yup’ik language and culture will be incorporated into the curriculum. Some school districts in the region are moving towards Yup’ik immersion programs using the Gomez & Gomez Dual Language Model. This bilingual education model teaches students to develop full proficiency in their first language and high levels of proficiency in a second language. Occasionally, the Head Start staff invite principals and teachers from other regional communities to share their success using this language model.
Preserving Alaska’s Native languages is an important part of Alaska’s culture and history. When a language dies, the knowledge and ability to understand the culture is threatened because the customs, traditions, teachings and knowledge is no longer shared among Native speakers. There are many ways to preserve a language as suggested below.
Preserve languages by recording fluent speakers and Elders so they are kept alive and passed down through the generations
- Develop comprehensive and culturally appropriate curriculum through language-immersion programs for both Alaska Native children and adults
- Engage in meaningful research
- Allocate funding and resources needed to preserve and develop Alaska Native languages
- Use it in the home every day and hold language nights in communities
During the past several years, various programs have been initiated to keep Alaskan Native languages alive. We must recognize and thank our Elders and other teachers for their perseverance and efforts to save all twenty of Alaska’s Native languages.