Language is more than just a communication medium: it’s power.
That’s the core message of this year’s Elders and Youth conference Oct. 13-16 hosted by the First Alaskans Institute at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. The conference precedes the upcoming Alaska Federation of Natives convention, set to begin Oct. 17, also in Fairbanks.
The Elders and Youth theme, “Language is Our Superpower,” focuses on the preservation and revitalization of Native languages across Alaska.
In addition to cultural dance performances, plenary speakers and workshops, the conference highlights keynote speakers from various Tribes across the state: one for the elders and one for the youth. This year, there are two youth speakers — Tusagvik Oliver and Tusagvik Wilson Hoogendorn, brothers from Nome.
This isn’t the brothers’ first brush with statewide attention. Earlier this year, they became Alaska celebrities when they were the first two people to summit Denali for the 2019 season, scaling the 20,310-foot peak in 14 days and skiing down in less than two.
Both brothers, in their early 20s, are in college; Tusagvik is studying environmental biology at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and Tusagvik is pursuing aeronautical studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Tusagvik said the level of excitement about their climb surprised them when they came back down. They’d expected their family to be excited, but they found themselves receiving congratulations from all over the Native community.
“It was after that, when people who we knew or that we’d known before in other Native communities … it was like the pride and what they felt about it—that’s when we started to feel pride about it,” he said.
Growing up in Nome, he said the only person he could remember speaking fluent Inupiaq in his family was his great-grandmother. He remembers learning to count in Inupiaq, but they weren’t immersed in the language. He said he doesn’t speak it today, though he would like to learn.
“It seems like when just one person learns a language and speaks it, or a couple of people, it doesn’t mean too much. But when you really get a lot of people speaking it and everyone’s conversing, I feel like it’s more (meaningful),” he said. “The sense of pride you get from speaking your Native language, that’s really cool.”
Though he said he was excited to leave Nome when he first went to Colorado, it’s been harder and harder to go back south each time. Homesickness for him, he said, smells like the tundra and the frosty mornings of the Arctic. But overall, he says he’s glad he’s broadened his experiences.
“Just like in biology, without biodiversity, the ecosystem would die,” he said. “If a person stays in the same place their whole life, they live the same routine over and over again. (Leaving) changes your point of view about what’s valuable to you in life. It’s made me appreciate home a lot more … when I left home, I never thought I was going to go back.”
To the southwest of Nome, across the windswept Bering Sea, Elder Tugidaam Ayagaa Sally Swetzof has another perspective. She grew up speaking Unangam Tunuu on Atka, one of the larger Aleutian islands between Unalaska and Adak. English is still hard for her, she said; she thinks in Unangam Tunuu first.
“I remember being excited to go to school, not realizing I was going to have to speak English, so as my grade school continued, I’m sure I learned it along the way,” she said. “I don’t recall the exact year. It took me forever to learn it.”
As she grew up, she assumed she would have to attend high school at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, as her sisters did. But just as she prepared to go, a high school opened on Adak Island, where the military base was.
So she was able to stay closer to home; Adak is only one island over. After high school, she returned to Atka, where she worked for the school district. Eventually, she worked her way up to become the lead Unangam Tunuu instructor for K-12 at the Atka Netsvetov School.
The language persevered on Atka, perhaps because the island was so remote. Swetzof recalled that her parents and grandparents spoke the language at home, and as soon as they were off school property as children, they spoke Unangam Tunuu.
The children today are learning it through immersion programs the community has implemented called Where Are Your Keys, which has worked with several Native communities across the country to support language revitalization.
“The difference naturally is thinking naturally in the language itself that you’re learning. If you take out a Unangam word and translate it to English, they’re continuing to think in English … the idea is to have them think in Unangam Tunuu, in the language that they’re learning, so instead of memorizing, they’ll know this in their head, hopefully,” she said. “I’ve always been an advocate for the Unangam Tunuu, and the youth is starting to realize how precious the language is and taking steps to preserve it, so I’m pleased with that.”
Alaska officially recognized Native languages in 2014, and in 2018 former Gov. Bill Walker declared an emergency for Native language preservation. Individual Tribes and regions have been working to revitalize their languages through immersion programs, cultural camps and college classes.
Swetzof said she thought not enough is being done and pointed to the example of the Anchorage School District, which has only one school — College Gate Elementary — that offers a Native language immersion program, which focuses on Yup’ik. Other world languages are broadly offered, but Native languages are not. Teachers may be scarce, but there are elders and speakers in the communities who could serve as resources for instruction, she said.
“Without language, the culture dies,” she said. “You see that time and again. It’s going faster than we would like it to, and it’s important to stress the fact that if there’s resources out there.”
The Elders and Youth Conference is scheduled to begin on Oct. 13 with a Warming of the Hands session at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. The conference continues from Oct. 14-16 with speakers, events, dance performances and music performances. Registration on site begins at noon Oct. 13 and costs $55 for youth, chaperones and other participants; the fee is waived for elders.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]