How To Continue, Not Preserve, Alaska Native Languages

Students from the Yup'ik immersion school in Bethel, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, pose by the Kuskokwim River. Immersion schools are one way to strengthen and continue Alaska Native Languages. This Tuesday a state-wide call-in show will invite callers to share their thoughts on how to strengthen indigenous languages in Alaska.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

How do you keep a language alive? On Tuesday, a state council is asking people to call in with their suggestions on how to do that with Alaska’s many Native languages. Retired UAF Alaska Native Studies professor Cecilia Martz has watcher the languages change over time, and she has some ideas after dedicating her career to teaching cross-culture studies.

The state council is called the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. Martz supports the council’s mission, but objects to the word “preservation.”

“Because 'preserve' sounds like you put something in formaldehyde and let it preserve,” she said.

Things in formaldehyde are dead, usually sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere, and Martz has a greater vision for Alaska Native languages.

“The best English word I can think of is to 'continue' the language, because it’s vibrant and alive,” Martz said. “When you continue something, you don’t just stop it. You don’t just put it on paper and forget about it. When you continue, you continue to live it.”

Martz taught as an Associate Professor of History and Anthropology for 17 years with the UAF Kuskokwim Campus, and even helped create the languages' written forms. For her, these languages are often better for communicating than English. 

“It’s filled with spirituality, and ways to live and how to do things, and what we call Yuyarraaq [the way of life],” she explained. “Language is a whole part of that.”

Though both Yup’ik and Cup’ik are spoken in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Martz has seen the number of people speaking the languages diminish, along with the complexity of the languages. In her own family, she watched her older siblings retain more of their Native Cup’ik than the younger siblings, who were sent to English-enforced boarding schools. When Martz moved her children from Chevak to Bethel, she saw parts of their Cup’ik language abilities slip away as they were surrounded by more English speakers.

As English has become more dominant, Martz hears less of the high Cup’ik and Yup’ik of her Elders.

“So the language is getting simpler and more washed out,” she explained, “and you use English words in between. So you see the language going down, and down, and down.”

Ever the teacher, Martz is personally pushing back against that decline.

“I have a list of Cup’ik words that are not used any more, and so I try to use them, and then the Cup’ik speakers around me ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ And so I tell them what it means, and I tell them to start using that instead of the modern version, the simpler version,” she said.

Martz has advice for people who want to continue their language: “Teach yourself more of our culture and use it every day.”

You can call in Tuesday, August 13 at 11:30 a.m. to voice your thoughts on the state of Alaska Native languages during the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council teleconference. The number to call is 1-800-315-6338 followed by the passcode 26571#.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that Cecilia Martz taught as an Associate Professor of History and Anthropology at the UAF Kuskokwim Campus. A previous version of this article said she taught the Yup'ik and Cup'ik langauge and culture as an Associate Professor at the UAF Kuskokwim Campus.