KYUK radio listeners get stories in Yup'ik and English

khopkins@adn.comOctober 13, 2012 

BETHEL -- This just in: State-am qillerqistai yuangelliiniat angun qimalleq.

Translated from Yup'ik to English, that means Alaska State Troopers are searching for an outlaw hunting guide. It's how Sophie Evan began her 8:30 a.m. newscast here on a recent morning.

Evan's audience of up to 15,000 radio listeners in the largest Western Alaska city and 22 surrounding villages always hears the news twice. First in English, next in Yup'ik.

While the facts stay the same, the manner of storytelling changes with the language.

"Rarely will I use the English way of 'tell the story, sound bite. Tell the story, sound bite,' " said Evan, who imagines she is talking to her late grandmother or other elders as she reads the news. "When I have an interview that's really good, I have them tell the story themselves, all in Yup'ik."

In a state struggling to preserve 19 remaining Alaska Native languages, Bethel public radio station KYUK airs at least three Yup'ik newscasts a day. Not as history lessons or word-of-the-day instruction, but as straight coverage of current events.

Spoken by about 10,000 people -- more than 40 percent of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta -- Central Alaska Yup'ik is the healthiest of the Alaska Native languages, according to the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks. With the exception of some St. Lawrence Island households who speak a different variety of Yupik, it may be the only Native language still being learned by children in village homes, said center director Lawrence Kaplan.

At the Eddie Hoffman Senior Center in Bethel, elders compete for the seat closest to the boom box radio at news time, said services director Louise Charles. KYUK blares in Lower Kuskokwim living rooms and kitchens up to 90 miles upriver.

Like all Alaska Native languages, Central Yup'ik is in danger of going extinct if young people stop teaching it to their kids. For now, two of KYUK's four reporters speak it fluently, translating English scripts to Yup'ik on the fly, live on the air.


Akiarmiut-gguq ketiit, cena, usqaqliniuq cukaqapiarluni, iralum-gguq iluani 200-feet ketiit tagliniuq. City-iat, Tribe-ait-llu arenqiallugutnguniluku apraat.

Translation: The City of Akiak and the Akiak Native Community have declared a state of disaster. Officials say the shoreline of the Kuskokwim River has eroded nearly 200-feet in just one month's time.

The Bethel news radio team works in a small office hidden behind City Hall. Outside, Korean and Albanian cab drivers earn $5 a trip, trailing dust. The nearest Starbucks is a one-hour jet ride away.

Microphones, tea bags and a Yup'ik-English dictionary the size of a city phone book cluttered desks in the newsroom one morning this fall as the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" spilled from the loudspeakers. A 2011 KYUK survey found listeners like to hear oldies on the radio but can't stand jazz.

"Yuk to Yuk," a Yup'ik language call-in show, and the Yup'ik news also received high marks from listeners, said programming director Shane Iverson.

"Even the people who don't listen to (the news) just like the language being kept alive on the radio," he said.

Evan, a 50-year-old mother of five, sat before a pair of computer screens in another room at KYUK. She listened to slivers of a recorded interview, typing notes.

"We're striving ..." (Pause.)

"Standards that are out here ..." (Pause.)

"In terms of poverty ..." (Pause, rewind.)

The story was about fishing politics, a popular topic among Evan's Yup'ik listeners, and headline news throughout the summer after a ban on subsistence king salmon fishing angered and frustrated local fishermen. Some village setnetters were cited by Alaska State Troopers for fishing anyway.

In this interview, news director Angela Denning-Barnes asked questions in English. She could be heard telling the head of a nonprofit that operates under Alaska's Community Development Quota program that she was about to hand the interview over to Evan, who would repeat the questions in Yup'ik.

The quota program is controversial in Western Alaska. It shares money from the massive Bering Sea pollock fishery with villages, but many village fishermen believe the pollock fleet is to blame for declining king salmon returns. Complicated stuff, in any language.

Evan looked at her MacBook. She has found people sometimes answer questions in more detail when they're asked in Yup'ik. She's not sure why, she said. Sometimes she asks questions the English-speaking reporters don't.

Evan pressed the CDQ official about his group's involvement in the trawler fleet, she said. "The questions I asked in Yup'ik were, I think, tougher."


State-am qillerqistai tanganek iinrullugnek-llu murilkestait, tanganek tegukenglliniut akaki California-mek tuyuqumayaqelret Cevv'arnermun.

Translation: The Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, or WAANT, has intercepted yet another illegal shipment of alcohol, this time all the way from California.

All reporters routinely ask the people they're talking to spell their names and list their job titles. In Yup'ik interviews, Evan and fellow reporter and former KYUK news director Trim Nick, also jot down their sources' Yup'ik names, the names of their parents and where their family lives.

"It's traditional to introduce whoever I'm interviewing ... by his Yup'ik name and through his parents. That's always his credentials, so to speak," Evan said.

It's unclear how many radio stations broadcast Alaska Native or American Indian language programming across the country, but fully staffed, bilingual news shows like KYUK's are rare. At least one station in South Dakota, KILI, produces some amount of Lakota language news, said Chuck Baldwin, journalist in residence for the American Indian Journalism Institute.

In Nome, KNOM news director Laureli Kinneen hopes to find funding to hire translators to broadcast a weekly news show in a few of the Alaska Native languages spoken throughout Western and Northwest Alaska. "We do not have any Siberian Yupik, Yup'ik or Inupiat newscasts. This region is so diverse -- unlike the Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow areas -- that we would have to do four different casts to reflect the languages and dialects in our listening area," Kinneen wrote in an email.

In Bethel, KYUK has been broadcasting Yup'ik News for decades. The practice was already in place when general manager Mike Martz started working here in the early 1980s, he said.

KTUU-Channel 2 reporter Rhonda McBride ran the Bethel station's English-language department for much of the 1990s.

"All of the Yup'ik newscasters I worked with acknowledged that their grasp of Yup'ik was much less than their elders -- and so it took some courage to attempt to translate the news -- because they each knew there were standards they couldn't immediately achieve," McBride said. "But they all tried and got better. They have a lot to do with why Yup'ik is one of the strongest Native languages in the state."

Evan was embarrassed to discover KYUK playing in seemingly every building she visited during a reporting trip to the downriver village of Tuntutuliak, she said. "Everyone had their radio on. Not soft like this. You could hear it even if the mom's clanking around the kitchen."


Calista Corporation-aam ciuliqagtai neplingraata, subsidiary-iin iliit caliurluteng akiirugarnek unangutliniitkut $4.5 billion amllertalrianek.

Translation: Amid controversy over who is to lead the Calista Corp., one of its subsidiaries has gone on with business as usual, and managed to secure a staggering $4.5 billion federal contract.

There are no roads connecting Lower Kuskokwim River villages, though trucks and taxis drive the frozen river to Bethel in the winter. Some villages where KYUK can be heard, residents have no indoor plumbing but can access wireless Internet at their local schoolhouse.

"Facebook is huge out here," Denning-Barnes said.

The news director hopes to one day provide a full page of Yup'ik news on the station website. But Internet access remains limited in some homes and radio plays an outsized role in village life, as it has for decades.

Both current KYUK Yup'ik news reporters, Evan and Nick, first worked for the station as teenagers.

Nick had just turned 15 when he started working on the Yup'ik news and later worked as a legislative aide and a mental health and substance abuse counselor for the regional health corporation. ("The high rate of relapse, it became discouraging for me," he said.) By September, Nick was reporting part-time again at KYUK, writing about efforts to reduce soaring suicide rates on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and local elections.

For Evan, radio began as an after-school job. She earned $10 an hour as a high school senior. "I could go to Swanson's (department store) and order from Sears," she said.

She left Bethel for about 20 years, working as a translator based out of the coastal village of Quinhagak before returning to the city, and the radio station, last year.

It's been a busy time in Bethel news. Evan hosted a special Yup'ik-language show on Friday featuring executives of the region's Native corporation, Calista. The company's board made headlines in the region after an apparent clash with chief executive Andrew Guy, who was among the first people to call in Friday, said Iverson, the programming director.

English listeners knew news was being made, but not what anyone was saying. The entire conversation took place in Yup'ik.

"The only time I heard English being said was, like, numbers," Iverson said. Evan plans to summarize the exchange during the English-language news on Monday.

Evan learned Yup'ik in the home of her maternal grandmother, Katie Kernak of Napakiak. Kernak always wanted to hear all about Evan's girlhood trips to the family subsistence camps -- trapping in the spring, berry picking in the fall, the reporter said. How was the weather, Kernak had wondered. What did the land look like and how did the animals sound? Evan told her the details in Yup'ik.

When she began reading the news, Evan imagined she was explaining current events to her grandparents.

Kernak died this year at the beginning of king salmon season. Behind the microphone, Evan still thinks about her.

"I know that even though she isn't there listening to me, I can picture others that would like a good, concise telling of the world," she said.



NOTE: The Yup'ik and English translations in this story were provided by KYUK reporter and translator Sophie Evan. Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at

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