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Native language is theme of Elders and Youth Conference

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 20, 2014

The importance of Alaska Native languages to culture, identity and individual well-being took center stage Monday as the First Alaskans Institute's Elders and Youth Conference -- the precursor to the biggest Native gathering of the year -- began in Anchorage.

A teenager from Yakutat gave his keynote address before a packed crowd of hundreds in Tlingit, then English, explaining that some Native words cannot be translated.

A fluent Inupiaq speaker from Nome expressed regret to everyone who never had the chance to learn their Native language, and to those who decades ago were punished for speaking it.

Members of the state's new Alaska Native language council urged that more be done to study and restore languages, as a way to save the culture.

The three-day Elders and Youth Conference, celebrating its 30th year, is drawing about 1,200 participants from Barrow to Kodiak to Metlakatla, plus vendors and artists. Its theme this year is "Get Up! Stand Up!" The conference connects youths to their Alaska Native culture with song and dance and also puts attention on deeper issues including homelessness and suicide.

The much bigger Alaska Federation of Natives convention, with the theme "Rise as One," opens Thursday and runs through Saturday. It is expected to attract about 5,000 people and also includes an Alaska Native art show with some 170 artists and craftsmen showing and selling their work.

Both events are taking place at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage.

Youths were tapped Monday to be ambassadors for elders, bringing them cups of water, directing them to different meeting rooms, talking with them at roundtables.

Much of the gathering revolved around language.

Devlin Anderstrom, 17, is a Yakutat High senior and Tlingit language apprentice who grew up mostly in Yakutat. His background is a blend of Native cultures: Tlingit, Ahtna, Tanacross and Inupiaq. He is being paid to learn Tlingit in a program of the Yakutat tribe and Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"Our language connects us to our land, connects us to our past and to the people who love us more than anybody else. Our ancestors. Our grandparents. Our parents," Anderstrom said in part two of his keynote speech, after first speaking in Tlingit.

The crowd interrupted him with loud applause.

Ideals and values of elders and ancestors only really come across in the Native language, he said.

Consider the word "haa kusteeyi," he said. It means everything -- culture, way of life, heritage.

You need to think in Tlingit to get it, he said.

"There are things that just cannot be expressed in English, that we can express through our language," he said. English isn't structured that way, he said. But when he uses Tlingit, he said, he feels the presence of his ancestors.

Anderstrom said he is a regular kid in a lot of ways.

"I've got my Facebook, my Instagram, my Snapchat." But he also studies Tlingit with intention. No one is too old to learn, he said.

"I encourage you to do this, to get up, stand up and fight for our language and our culture," Anderstrom said.

After he spoke, he could barely get through the crowd. Reporters wanted to talk to him. Elders hugged him. He said he's comfortable onstage through performing with Mount St. Elias Dancers.

He wants to make preserving his language and his culture his life's work, he said.

The message is one that resonates with the new Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, created two years ago by the Legislature. The council has been gathering recommendations from across the state on how to restore and save Alaska's Native languages. Another measure, passed this year after advocates jammed the hallways of the state Capitol, adds 20 Native languages to what had been Alaska's one-language official list.

At the conference, council members presented their first recommendations. The group wants research on the vitality and use of Native languages across the state. It wants more public information on language learning opportunities that already exist. And it wants a campaign to educate the public on the importance of Native languages, much like the "Choose Respect" campaign against domestic violence and sexual assault.

A 2000 state law already requires school districts with an Alaska Native majority to create a Native language curriculum advisory board. But only five of the 28 districts that fall under the requirement have done so, the council found.

Bernadette Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimpfle, a council member and Eskimo heritage program director for Kawerak Inc. who has taught Inupiaq for years, apologized to the crowd on behalf of fluent speakers, elders and the council itself to all those who were never taught their Native language, as well as those who were punished for speaking it.

"It was a way to honor, to give honor, to everyone present," she said.

Conference participants were asked to brainstorm ways to revitalize their language and came up with a lot of ideas.

Speak to the children or grandchildren in it, or even your dog. Say the blessing in your Native language. Use it at sporting events. Talk about hunting or fishing in your language.

The work continued as the conference broke up into language circles: Yup'ik, Ahtna, Gwich'in, Dena'ina, Alutiiq, Inupiaq and more.

In the Tlingit-Haida session, Nae Brown taught dozens of kids and some adults to introduce themselves in Tlingit.

"Waa sa I duwasaakw?" the teens asked one another, Tlingit for "What are you called?" A few turned their heads so they wouldn't have to try the challenging words. But most pushed themselves, even if they couldn't say it right.

At the Yup'ik language circle, Traditional Chief Paul John of Toksook Bay told more than 100 elders, youths and their chaperones that learning the language matters.

Speaking English is like wearing a borrowed coat that doesn't fit right, he said in Yup'ik through moderator Pepsi Jacobson.

Speaking their language makes them a stronger people, he said. It makes them who they are.

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