Less than 50 years since the end of government policies that required teachers to punish students who spoke Alaska Native languages, a group of kindergartners at Anchorage's College Gate Elementary School this fall will learn Yup'ik words like waqaa (hello), kituyit (who are you) and quyana (thank you).
They'll be the first class in the Anchorage School District's new Yup'ik immersion program, the first immersion in an Alaska Native language offered to public school students in Alaska's largest city.
Researchers and community members say the new, uniquely Alaska program is a way to connect students with Alaska Native culture and help revitalize a language that has a declining number of speakers. Any incoming kindergartners can sign up for the program through the school lottery, which closes July 26.
"You don't know who you are if you don't know your language," said Katie Tunuchuk, the new coordinator of the immersion program. Tunuchuk grew up in Chefornak and learned Yup'ik as her first language. Her Yup'ik name is Nuuni.
Yup'ik is the language of the Yukon and Kuskokwim deltas and Bristol Bay. It's the Alaska Native language with the most speakers, researchers say, but that number continues to shrink as fewer children learn it.
In the Anchorage School District, about 50 students have identified Yup'ik as the first language they learned, and about triple that number say their families speak the language at home, according to district data.
Tunuchuk currently teaches at the Anchorage School District's Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, where students learn some Yup'ik. She has long hoped that the district would start an immersion program so the children could spend more of their days surrounded by the language.
"We think it's something that should have been around awhile ago," she said. "We have a lot of kids from different areas of the state and many of them don't know their language. Even Yup'ik children who come to the school, we're finding that they don't know their language."
Number of speakers declines
The boarding school era in Alaska was not that long ago, when assimilating Alaska Native children into Western society was seen as a key part of education.
For decades, administrators with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs forced students in village schools to speak English. Until about 1970, federal and state policy instructed principals and teachers to punish students who spoke Alaska Native languages in school, said Roy Mitchell, research analyst for the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council.
The English-only policies led to a disconnect between generations, as some who experienced the punishments did not pass their own languages on, the council said in a report earlier this year.
The decline of speakers continued.
At last count, about a decade ago, an estimated 10,400 people spoke Yup'ik, less than half of Alaska's Yup'ik population, said Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"The decline is more rapid now than it was 40 years ago, which is a scary thing," Mitchell said.
In the mid-1990s there were 16 villages where all children learned Yup'ik as their first language, he said. About 20 years later, that shrunk to about five villages where about half of the children learned Yup'ik first.
Over the years, he said, English has become more powerful, both socially and economically. TV shows, movies and websites largely favor English. So do jobs, both in urban and rural Alaska.
"One of the reasons people are discouraged from using the language is people don't hear it," Mitchell said.
"One of the positive things that comes from all language immersion programs is making people aware that there are other languages, and it's okay to speak other languages," he said.
ASD's immersion offerings grow
For years, ideas circulated about starting a Yup'ik immersion program in Anchorage schools, said Brandon Locke, the district's director of world languages.
The district launched its first immersion program in 1989 in Japanese. From there, its immersion portfolio grew to include Spanish, Chinese, German and Russian — all initially fueled by grant funding, Locke said.
"Every time a new program surfaced, the community has definitely spoken and said, 'Why not any Alaska Native languages?'" he said.
Then, the first-ever federal grant became available for a Native language program. Out of 39 applicants, the Anchorage School District was one of five selected last year. It received a three-year grant for $1.3 million.
Meanwhile, Yup'ik immersion classes at two Head Start programs had also recently started in the city, creating a pipeline of young children learning the language that would soon head to kindergarten.
"The stars have been aligning," said Doreen Brown, director of the district's Title VI Indian Education program.
"It's been a lifelong dream to have an indigenous language in the Anchorage School District," she said.
'You can't buy Yup'ik classroom materials on Amazon'
Locke said the district is planning for two kindergarten classes in the program this fall at College Gate Elementary in East Anchorage.
One class will spend the first half of its day learning in Yup'ik and the other class will learn in English. They'll swap teachers for the afternoon.
The immersion program will grow with those students as they age, Locke said. For example, in the 2019-20 school year, the district will add a first grade Yup'ik immersion class. Locke hopes the program will eventually extend from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Brown said for Yup'ik students, she hopes the program will help strengthen their language as well as further engage them in school, perhaps helping to close achievement gaps that plague the state. For non-Native students, the program offers them the opportunity to learn Alaska Native language and culture, she said.
"If you're a native English speaker, you generally perform at a higher grade-level in your first language simply because of double literacy," she said. "You get the best of both worlds."
The Anchorage School District will have to rewrite its curriculum in Yup'ik for the immersion program, Locke said. In kindergarten next school year, students will learn science and social studies in the language.
The district is also partnering with the Lower Kuskokwim School District to use some of its Yup'ik language curriculum.
"We're the world's repository of Yup'ik classroom materials," said Carlton Kuhns, assistant superintendent of instructional programs for the district that's headquartered in Bethel. "You can't buy Yup'ik classroom materials on Amazon."
The Lower Kuskokwim School District has had a Yup'ik language immersion school for about 20 years, Kuhns said. Mitchell, the research analyst, estimated the program has produced roughly 300 fluent Yup'ik speakers.
'It's more than just a language. It's identity.'
At Cook Inlet Native Head Start in Anchorage, Yup'ik immersion classes started in 2015 for children age 3 through 5.
Teachers and parents said they watched the children's behavior improve as they started to learn Yup'ik, according to Ethan Petticrew, executive director at the Head Start program.
"We believe that's because the way to act as a human is embedded in the language," he said.
He's happy those children can now go to elementary school and continue learning in Yup'ik, using the language with their teachers and their peers.
"If we're going to start producing children who are fluent at the 5-year-old level, we didn't want to tell them the same story our grandparents told us — that when they went to school, they stopped using our language and our language died," Petticrew said.
Jennifer McCarty Charette plans to send her son, whose Yup'ik name is Canaar, to Anchorage School District's Yup'ik immersion program in fall 2019, and hopefully later her younger daughter will go there, too.
McCarty Charette wants them to learn their language, their culture and their history.
She came to Alaska to learn just that. She is Inupiaq and grew up in Canada. Her husband is Yup'ik. His mother is from the Southwestern Alaska village of Kwigillingok. He learned Yup'ik from his relatives there, but has told his wife stories about going to school on Anchorage's military base and having his hand beat with a ruler when he spoke in Yup'ik.
McCarty Charette said she and her husband don't know enough of their languages to teach their children. But they hope, as their children age, they'll continue to learn together.
"It's more than just a language, it's identity," she said. "It's understanding who you are."
Already, her son attends preschool classes in Yup'ik. When he looks up to the sky in Anchorage, she said, he calls out "tengssuun," the Yup'ik word for airplane.
Photographer Marc Lester contributed reporting to this article.