Educators work to preserve endangered Alaska languages

July 9, 2011 

Gary Holton and Eliza Jones, a Koyukon Athabascan linguist with the Alaska Native Language Center, look over the 1974 Alaska indigenous languages map at UAF.

PHOTO BY JAMES BARKER / UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA FAIRBANKS

If Alaska's Native languages vanish in the next generation, it won't be because people didn't try hard to keep them alive, says Gary Holton.

"There are significant efforts with Yup'ik immersion schools and teacher training programs," said Holton, associate professor of linguistics in the Alaska Native Language Center and director of the Alaska Native Languages Archive at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He pointed to an ongoing documentation effort, dictionaries and teaching of the endangered Deg Xinag and Han Athabascan dialects. Even Eyak, technically extinct, is benefiting from a language revival program that recently held workshops in Anchorage and Cordova, he said.

But he admits that the situation is critical for many of the state's indigenous languages.

The last person who called Eyak her first language, Marie Smith, died in 2008. Maybe one or two speakers of Holikachuk are still alive around Grayling, Holton said. A few more speak Deg Xinag, the neighboring Athabascan dialect. The number of Han speakers in Eagle is "perhaps less than 10; the situation on the Canadian side of the border is even worse. Maybe two speakers."

Holton played a key role in crafting the latest edition of the Alaska Languages Map. The map, which shows the historic distribution of 20 different Native Alaska languages, was first produced in 1974 by the director of the language center, Michael Krauss. It has been updated since then.

This most recent edition, available online at www.uaf.edu/anla/map, features several changes, Holton said. The names of some languages have been changed, either to reflect advances in linguistics or to rectify old names that may have been in some way offensive: Tanaina has become Dena'ina; Aleut is now Unangax; Ingalik is now Deg Xinag.

"Another big change is the inclusion of Native names for villages and geographic features given along with the English names," he said. Barrow is also Utqiagvik, and Kodiak Island is Qikertaq.

The map name for Juneau, Dzanti K'ihe-eni, may be a "bit contrived," Holton said, "since Juneau was not a traditional village." The same might be said for Anchorage, given as Dgheyaytnu.

Yup'ik scholar Cecilia Martz of Bethel noted another change. In previous editions, the percentage of young people speaking the language was indicated by different color dots. In 1974, the Central Yup'ik area was covered in black circles, indicating most children spoke Yup'ik, or circles divided half-and-half black and white, which meant that Yup'ik and English speakers were roughly even.

Referring to her hometown of Chevak, Martz said, "If they did it today, they'd have to make it all white. None of the kids speak the language. It's the same way with all that villages that were all dark; they should be all white or half white now."

Holton said that change in the map was "a deliberate choice based on feedback from community groups. There are less than half a dozen villages on the lower Kuskokwim with child speakers, so the map would have been almost entirely open circles -- not very informative or encouraging."

In "Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim" (Oxford Press, 2007), Krauss suggests the erosion of Native languages could be due to television, which is mostly English and ubiquitous in villages nowadays, and "the likely lethal effect of the 'No Child Left Behind' (federal school mandate), requiring proof of proficiency in English but not Native language."

But he also says that Yup'ik and Inupiaq are being retained at rates much higher than the Aleut and Indian languages. Yup'ik is particularly strong, he writes, accounting for "fully 93 percent of those who speak an Alaskan Native language."

The map has always followed traditional tribal boundaries, Holton said. So Eyak remains an enclave, though there are no speakers.

"If we were mapping languages as spoken today, he'd have to put a huge number of Yup'ik speakers in Anchorage," which is in traditional Dena'ina territory.

Some scholars believe that Yup'ik is the Native American language with the best chance of surviving the 21st century. It is commonly heard in Bethel. Martz cited radio news and call-in programs in the language, the presence of interpreters at the hospital, and education.

"There are two efforts that have had really good results," she said. "The school immersion program for kindergarten through sixth grade and the Yup'ik degree program at the college (UAF's Kuskokwim campus)."

When she speaks Yup'ik to children who have been through the immersion program, they respond to her in Yup'ik, she said. "But most of the time, they speak English. And with each other, they speak English."

In addition to education and documentation, many of Alaska's Native languages have benefited from being part of a widely distributed linguistic group. Maps in "Vanishing Languages" show dozens of distinct languages dotting America's west coast from Puget Sound to San Diego, each with one or no speakers remaining.

In contrast, the "Eskimoan" group reaches from Asia to the Atlantic Ocean, with tens of thousands of speakers in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Athabascan groups stretch as far south as Mexico. It reminds Holton of the continuum of Romance languages, which spans southern Europe from Romania to Portugal.

Nonetheless, "Simply based on the number of speakers and their ages," Holton said, it may be impossible for the most endangered Alaskan languages to keep from "going the way of Eyak."

"Nowhere can I say things look great," he said. "It's a sad scenario but there are glimmers of hope. I choose to focus on the positive."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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