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What Makes Alaska Alaska


The Native language activists discuss cultural incubation, intergenerational learning, and the role of legislation.

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Where I live, in Sheet’ká, or Sitka, Alaska, to say something is dark gray you would say, lawúx yáx yatee, “it is like a baby seagull.” Dark blue is “like the Steller’s jay,” a bird that lives in the woods surrounding the town. White is dleit yáx yatee, “it is like snow,” which falls here much less than people at home in New York think it does.

There are no absolute color words, no “red” or “blue,” in Lingít (Tlingit), a language that has been spoken in Southeast Alaska for approximately 10,000 years. Colors are instead described in familiar terms that are so local, so rooted in place, that they can differ even in neighboring Lingít communities. Today, the language has approximately 130 fluent speakers left, although it’s difficult to estimate the true number of speakers. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the definition of “speaker” itself: Some can understand, but cannot speak. Some can speak with great facility, but rarely do. Some are eager to converse, but are limited to a few phrases they learned from their grandparents. Nearly all the elders of the speaking generation lived through a time when the use of Native languages was not only discouraged in Alaska, but punished—repressed by institutions, notably by boarding schools.

I moved to Sitka last year to work on Lingít language revitalization in the education department of the local tribal government. Like many Alaska Native languages, Lingít is no longer passed down naturally from generation to generation. My teachers are second language learners themselves, frequently needing to consult the handful of fluent elders on language matters large and small. The hope is that our work might relieve these elders by helping them to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. As local language activists say: the elders have carried this burden for so long; we need to work to lift it from their shoulders.

There have been some advances. In 2014, Alaska became the second US state after Hawaii to make its twenty Native languages official languages of the state. House Bill 216, introduced by Alaska’s youngest legislator, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, faced significant opposition. The leadership in the State Senate attempted to close out the session without a vote, to let the issue die, as it were, without a voice. But local language activists came together to crowd the hallways of the Juneau statehouse on the last day of the legislative session, drumming and singing into the early hours of the morning, refusing to clear out until the bill was given a vote and the legislators were made to put themselves on the record. It passed 18-2.

The Alaska Language Summit this February in Juneau arose as a response to the need to unite those working to strengthen local languages across Alaska. It brought together speakers, language activists, language learners, and teachers from across the state, as well as guest presenters from communities outside of Alaska, including Hawaii and Six Nations in Canada, that have had success in language revitalization. I had the privilege of spending time with the three summit organizers, who work in the Alaska Legislature and who are all actively involved in Alaska Native language revitalization.

Reid Paałuk Magdanz, twenty-five, was raised in Kotzebue and Nome, and went to college at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives between Juneau, Sitka, and Kotzebue while working for the initial proponent of House Bill 216, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie, twenty-six, is a second language learner and an advocate for Alaska Native languages and people. Her family is from Wainwright, a village along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. She publishes Nalliq, an online repository of stories and poetry about indigenous issues, and is currently working in the Alaska Legislature on indigenous and language legislation. David Russell-Jensen, twenty, is a Tlingit language learner and student at the University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau. He is Tsimshian and Iñupiaq, was born in Sitka, Alaska, and grew up in Juneau.

After I returned from Juneau to Sitka, I reached the organizers of the Language Summit via Skype at the Alaska State Capitol. We discussed how a generation of Alaskans is taking up the challenge of learning and teaching Alaska Native languages, how far policy can go toward language revitalization, and the role of these languages in the future of Alaska.

Stephanie Gilardi for Guernica

Guernica: In addition to working in the Alaska State Legislature, you three are all actively engaged in learning Native languages. Can you relate your personal language journeys?

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: I’m learning Lingít at the University of Alaska Southeast. I’m in my second year. I don’t know if I had a moment when I decided to start learning a Native language, because it was never really a part of my life growing up. I just signed up for Lingít, and I’ve just been running with it. I think there’s a lot of responsibility, or I feel a personal responsibility, to learn Lingít, living here in Juneau, in Southeast Alaska, on Lingít land.

Reid Paałuk Magdanz: I was in some Iñupiaq classes in Kotzebue in elementary and middle school, just thirty minutes a couple times a week or something. I heard the language a bit growing up in Kotzebue and in some of the villages I visited, but not too often and I didn’t learn much. I became especially motivated once I moved back to Alaska after living in Laos for a year. When I was there, I put a lot of time into learning their language, which is not a particularly simple one—it uses an entirely different writing system, and it’s tonal, the grammatical structure is entirely different from English. Over the course of the year I went from not knowing a single word to being fairly conversational in it. And I thought: If I can do this in Laos, really it’s not an impossible task to learn a Native language. And I’ve been focused on it since.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: My family’s from the North Slope, to start from the very beginning. There’s probably about twenty words or so that we used in our household, and they were just regular words. Like aana, great aunt, or dudu—there are no Ds in our language, but it’s a mix between a D and T sound—it’s the act of carrying a baby inside and in the back of your parka and tying a rope or something similar around your waist so the baby stays inside. They weren’t special words, they were just words that weren’t in English.

Guernica: David mentioned a feeling of duty, or responsibility, to learn a Native language, a theme that came up again and again at the language summit. Is that a common sentiment?

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: I can speak to that a little bit, personally. When I go to Wainwright, I stay with my great uncle and until last year with my great aunt, who passed, and Iñupiaq is the language of their home. My great uncle said that I needed to learn the language, and when my great aunt passed I wanted to have that one-to-one ratio: one language speaker in the community of Wainwright passes on, and is replaced by another language speaker.

Rather than asking why these languages are important, we should consider why anybody would think they’re not important.

Guernica: Why are Native languages so important to Alaska, to communities in Alaska?

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: Rather than asking why these languages are important, we should consider why anybody would think they’re not important. I can’t comprehend why people would think these languages aren’t important to Alaska because, for 10,000 years, they have been Alaska.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: Especially over the past few decades, there’s been such an influx of other worldviews, and other ways of being, and you have the question of what is really the indigenous perspective. The indigenous perspectives really are in the language, and they can be unlocked through the language. How a group of people sees everything around them can be found and uncovered by learning the language. And that’s true of all languages, really.

For example, Iñupiaq isn’t very conversational. It speaks to the nature of the people and the harsh environment; it’s directional. It’s all about commands; it’s one person telling another person to do something exactly in the way it needs to be done, exactly where and how, exactly the moment it’s said. ’Cause, survival. Sure, there’s storytelling. But again: that’s directional—one person telling a group.

In Alaska you have twenty different languages. That’s twenty different worldviews, twenty different insights into the right way of being. That diversity adds so much to Alaska, and it’s really what makes Alaska Alaska, in my opinion.

Guernica: One of the presenters at the language summit commented that through language, we come to know ourselves.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: I absolutely agree with that. It relates to everything about who you are, and who you are in a group, and that feeling of community and inclusiveness and connection of the younger generation to the older generation, so that there’s not this big divide. It allows people to understand the practices of older people who can speak the language. Bringing together the generations, and continuity through generations—it’s so important because it helps show who you are, and people who know who they are aren’t going to hurt themselves. It’s conducive to healthy communities, being able to practice your culture.

We can continue being us in the modern age, just like any other people, whatever that might look like.

Another reason why language is important that isn’t talked about is that knowing your language enhances security in policy; in knowing your language, and teaching it to your children, you are helping guarantee your children’s rights as an indigenous person. It’s also an incubator for that specific culture to continue to grow and develop and self-nourish autonomously. It helps cultures progress, so that we’re not frozen in the time of contact with Western culture. We can continue being us in the modern age, just like any other people, whatever that might look like.

Guernica: You three all work in the state legislature in Alaska. Do you have a sense of the things that could be accomplished for the language movement through policy?

Reid Paałuk Magdanz: The first way of answering is that the more we work on this, the more we realize that there is only so far that policy can go, especially state legislative policy. And I felt this in the course of drafting the language immersion bill that we’re now working on. A lot of the work that needs to be done to revitalize Native languages is going to be done by communities, by local institutions, and by people on those levels. That’s not to say that if the state had a lot of money and was strongly committed to revitalization that providing additional funding for language programs would not be a huge boost to them, but a lot of the tools necessary to making language revitalization happen are available already. And people shouldn’t sit around waiting for the legislature to do something before taking action.

The second way is that, I do think, in terms of things like the official language bill, in terms of the summit, working in a legislative office and having a supportive legislator, having Representative Kreiss-Tomkins behind this issue, is valuable. Being in the legislature gives you a way to get your message out, it gives you access to certain means of dissemination and certain avenues of action you wouldn’t have otherwise. And that is very valuable, but again, there’s only so much we can do at the legislative level to get communities to support Native language programs. And we try with things like the summit, and with running legislation that makes incremental changes, that helps people, that excites people. But a lot of it comes down to communities and their desire and motivation to make it happen.

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: I think that what Reid said is right, and also taking an action-oriented approach to language revitalization is really important, no matter where it’s coming from. The amount of action and change that occurs within the legislature is a great model—it’s a great attitude to take to language revitalization.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: The way I see it is that you have a variety of different avenues for work to be done, and policy is certainly one of those. They’re all complementary to one another, you have different people advocating for different methods—policy, immersion, technology, and second language learners, and all of these things working together. You’re basically standing at what I envision as different points in a circle, and it just takes all of those people in it together, and people come behind them to strengthen them, and people come behind them to strengthen them, and then you get to the tipping point when it becomes a movement.

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: Having a strong networking-oriented mind, and working collaboratively, is another thing that comes out of the legislature. Creating strong networks in communities across Alaska is what we intended to do with the language summit. Networking, and being action-oriented, change-oriented.

Guernica: So many people involved in Native languages now are in the difficult position of teaching while they are not yet fluent—of being learners and teachers at the same time.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: From my experience leading language circles and being connected with other people who are in the same position, teaching, I would say that’s accurate. When I started working at ASRC—Arctic Slope Regional Corporation—my native corporation, and working around other Iñupiaq people who knew more Iñupiaq than I did, it just piqued a natural interest. That was back in 2009. I started having more conversations, piecing together bits of language. That’s when I started my first language circle, at work, actually. We didn’t have a formal teacher, but we had the understanding that each of us knew something that perhaps other people in the room might not know. Collectively, the knowledge that what we had was enough meant that we could continue sharing the language.

But it’s often a very difficult place to be, when you’re still learning the language and you’re not fluent, largely because the feedback from the community is that it’s not ideal. But at the rate that our languages are disappearing, nothing about this situation is ideal. There are also some additional things that are difficult, culturally. The value of humility is important in many Alaska Native cultures, and if you’re putting the language out there, you’re going to get attention for that. I know many people who are second language learners and teachers, and at one point or another they want to just completely give up because of all of the pressure and all of the intense criticism, how vulnerable it really makes you to be in that position.

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: But there are so many things that learners pick up on that a fluent speaker might not. Sometimes learners can be better teachers because they can pick up on things that would make learning easier. Learners can really help others by sharing how they’ve gotten to their level of language acquisition as a second language learner. Even if it’s sometimes frowned upon, learners as teachers can be really beneficial.

Guernica: Thinking about revitalization as something that’s possible is exciting, because there’s a lot of sadness and despair around the state of Alaska Native languages. What are some of the major obstacles or challenges you’re working with?

David Sumiq Russell-Jensen: There are a lot of things we need to work through in our communities and society to revitalize Native languages. There are so many misconceptions out there, that Alaska Native languages can’t convey things like science, or can’t convey things like math, or that you can’t teach certain content through Alaska Native languages, and that’s something we really have to work through.

Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie: Another component is that a lot of people who are the speaking generation, within their lifetimes, there was a massive message of “Don’t speak your language!” and now we’re pushing them, saying, “Speak your language.” So if you are fluent, and you do speak the language, that brings up a lot of difficulties, a lot of past traumas, especially from the boarding school era. As we move forward, we do so with that in mind.

An Alaska that is proudly multicultural has something almost nowhere else in the world has.

Guernica: How do you see the role of Native languages in Alaska’s future?

Reid Paałuk Magdanz: I go back to my experiences outside the country again. We’re very used to the United States being a monolingual nation where almost everything is in English, but that’s not the case in much of the world. You have signs written in multiple languages, you have menus in multiple languages, you have people using one language in the streets and another in meetings—it’s an equally natural arrangement. And when I imagine the future for Native languages in Alaska, I see them being used in homes, being used out on the land, in a lot of rural communities in particular, but not to the exclusion of English; it’s critical that you also be fully fluent and proficient in English. That’s the language of this country and, increasingly, the world. There’s going to be countless situations where even if a Native language is vibrant in a community, English is going to make more sense if you have people from other regions visiting. My vision is of a world where people are comfortable and fluent in both languages, and comfortable and fluent in Native cultural values as well as American cultural values. To the value of languages in Alaska, I second everything David and Cordelia said, but just the idea of having living, breathing, thriving Native languages in Alaska, that makes the state even more dynamic, interesting, and meaningful than it already is as a place to live and as a place to visit. That would only attract more talented people, and keep Alaskans in the state. I think it’s a moral issue, it’s a cultural issue, but there are also economic components to it. An Alaska that is proudly multicultural has something almost nowhere else in the world has, which is thriving Native languages and Native societies. It’s an Alaska that’s only more enticing to everything we want to entice.

Guernica: What are the next steps? How do we get there?

Reid Paałuk Magdanz: Make it happen. I think that’s what we were trying to get at with this language summit. To a large degree, we know what it takes to revitalize a language. Some of Alaska’s languages are in much better states than languages that have come back—others are maybe not, but we know what tools are in the toolbox, we know how to deploy them, we have examples to look to. We really just need to get out there and advocate in our communities. Convince your friends, convince your parents, and your aanas and your aatas, or your grandkids, if you are a grandparent. And say, “Yeah, this is something we can do!” And we should do. And now’s the time.

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One comment for What Makes Alaska Alaska

  1. Comment by Nathan on March 15, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Great read. What great hope for Alaska.

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