'Capture the moment': Pursuing language revitalization opportunities in Bristol Bay
Eight years ago, Igiuigig’s Village Council started a master-apprentice language learning program. It was called Wangkuta Qanriarait Nanvarparmiut Yugestun, or ‘We all speak Lake Iliamna Yup’ik.’ President AlexAnna Salmon helped pair five fluent speakers of the Lake Iliamna dialect with local apprentices, to learn the dialect through conversation. In 2017, the community opened a Yup’ik Pre-K program, co-taught by elders and apprentices. But since then, the elders have passed on, and the program ended.
“In the time that we started, which was roughly 2014, we have lost every single one of our first language speakers,” Salmon said. “And the last time I counted, there were 22 speakers left on earth of the Lake Iliamna dialect of Yup’ik.”
Salmon said the region needs “all hands-on deck” to revitalize Bristol Bay’s Native languages. Fluent elders have a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge to share with others.
“We're so lucky to have a region where you have communities like Manokotak, where they're still raising babies in the [Yup’ik] language,” said Salmon.
But Salmon, who grew up around Yup’ik, said the region needs to make a concerted effort to keep its Native languages alive. As someone who has spent years launching language and cultural programs — from summer camps to filling digital archives with recordings of Igiugig’s elders — Salmon believes there’s no shortage of opportunities to fund new programs. But they require maintenance and are labor intensive.
To start a language program in a school, for example, requires someone to develop a curriculum, secure funding, and teach and train future teachers. Communities must also get districts to set aside time for students to take the course. Salmon said Igiugig is working to get approval from the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District for virtual language training programs in Dena’ina and Yup’ik — part of their Iliamna Communities Teaching Culture through Native Languages program. Currently, the district doesn’t have a requirement for second language learning — for Native languages or otherwise.
For adults, accessing language resources can be challenging. Many people learn through classes, but a single language course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks can cost over a thousand dollars and require students to study remotely.
“There's no pathway from distance for you to even get a degree in Yup’ik from where I'm living,” Salmon said.
Fluent speakers are a critical resource. Without them, the language fades from use. Each year, Bristol Bay’s Native languages lose birth speakers — a trend seen throughout Alaska. In a 2018 administrative order, former Gov. Bill Walker declared a "linguistic emergency" for Alaska Native languages. The order called on the state government to work with tribal governments to actively promote these languages. Historically, the U.S. government and institutions like schools and churches violently and systematically suppressed Native languages — an effort that spanned hundreds of years, well into the 20th century.
“That level of effort is what is needed now to save our languages,” Salmon said.
For Salmon, language and culture are intertwined. Language preserves cultural autonomy.
“Our identity is all in the language. Our worldview is all in the language. And it is our tribal sovereignty,” she said.
Ultimately, Salmon said, language revitalization cannot happen in a vacuum. Studies from around the world stress the need for community engagement. For the Bristol Bay region, that means identifying everything available to speak Yup’ik, Alutiiq and Dena’ina in everyday life, so they are kept alive.
“I just want other villagers to realize, you know, you have these elders,” she said, “So, let's capture this moment.”
Communities can apply for private and federal funding to establish language programs, such as classes, master-apprentice programs, camps, and immersive language nests. The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center provides a non-exhaustive list of grants, and the Bristol Bay Foundation offers two grants for community shareholders to assist in language efforts.
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