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Traditional winter, holiday songs in Alaska's Alutiiq language

Katie Medred
Courtesy Alutiiq Museum

The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska has a unique offering this holiday season: Two original Alutiiq winter songs and one very popular Austrian Christmas Carol translated from English into the Native Alaska language.

Assistant professor of Alutiiq language and culture at Kodiak College and the language manager at Alutiiq Museum, April Counceller said that the Alutiiq version of the 1818 holiday favorite "Silent Night," or "Nepainani Unuk," was translated from English into Alutiiq some eight years ago. However, the two original Alutiiq winter songs, Counceller said, "were written by school children out in Old Harbor (Kodiak), with the help of elders, about 10 to 15 years ago."

Original Alutiiq winter songs, called "Snowman" and "Sledding" offer the students of Alutiiq and the Alutiiq youth of Kodiak a chance to sing seasonal melodies in their traditional tongue. The winter songs are sweetly whimsical with a hint of wintertime weight (melancholy), but delightfully fresh and perfect for the holiday season. Go ahead and listen to "Snowman" preformed by Stella Krumrey & the Old Harbor youth below, and see for yourself.

"The songs (Snowman and Sledding) are preformed during the winter by dance groups and at school to practice the language," Counceller said. "They have actions that go along, like miming." She adds that for school-age children, the songs really offer a "full performance" with kids singing and acting out the topic of the song, such as the construction of a snowman.

The Alutiiq people, one of the major Native Alaskan groups that settled Alaska along with the Aleut, Yup'ik, Inupiaq, Athabascan and the Northwest Coastal Indians, established communities in Alaska around the Kodiak Archipelago and the outer Kenai Peninsula.

Alutiiq is one of six Eskimo languages. Today there are between 125 to 150 fluent speakers worldwide, 33 of whom reside in the Kodiak area. According to Dr. Sven Haakanson, executive director at the Alutiiq Museum, "When you teach (these) songs you get the individual members to sing a song instead of speaking it, (giving) them the opportunity to ... speak and hear Alutiiq being spoken."

Haakanson and Counceller agree that song is a great way to spread and to teach the endangered language. Haakanson said, via email: "(Song) is a wonderful tool to get us to speak words we are not comfortable with and then feel more at ease as we make mistakes with everyone else." He adds, "Music is an aid to learning a language -- we sing songs to our children, and this is no different."

You can find "Snowman," "Sledding," and "Silent Night" in Alutiiq, including audio and lyrics, online at the Alutiiq Museum's website.

Read more about the Alutiiq language and culture.

Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com