Rural Alaska

Yup'ik speaker is 1st to be official court interpreter

BETHEL — For the first time, the state court in Bethel has a recognized professional Yup'ik interpreter on staff.

Crystal Garrison, supervisor for Alaska Court System's in-court clerks in Bethel, recently passed the National Center for State Courts' written exam for court interpreters. She was tested on court terms, ethical standards for interpreters and her English proficiency. About half of the first-time test takers pass; Garrison scored 93.

The national center has no test for Yup'ik, so her Yup'ik skills were assessed separately through mentoring and college Yup'ik classes on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim campus, according to the court system.

"It's a really big deal," said Brenda Aiken, the court system's language services director. "From our perspective, the courts' perspective, we are now able to provide an interpreter on site, right there when you need it."

Since 2012, 12 other Alaska court interpreters have passed the national center's written exam. The languages they cover are Russian, Spanish, Korean and Samoan. Garrison is not only the first Yup'ik speaker to pass the national test, she also is the first Alaska Court System employee to do so. The others are independent contractors or work through entities such as the Anchorage-based Language Interpreter Center.

Garrison, 37, said she has worked in the court system more than 15 years and has long recognized the need for a trained interpreter. Too often family members interpreted but might have been uncomfortable with the subject, for instance in cases of sexual abuse. Sometimes she could tell that Yup'ik speakers were struggling to understand but hiding it.

"They were trying to be accommodating and trying not to upset anyone. So they would just agree with what they thought would please the court," Garrison said. She started speaking to those higher up in the court system about the problem.


She already is interpreting in court two or three times a month to help those with limited English skills understand the court process, as well as helping individuals at the counter. She also has made videos in Yup'ik and English to inform defendants of their rights.

Recently, she interpreted for a witness in a child custody case. She also does so for civil suits, divorces and guardianships, as well as criminal cases before a lawyer is appointed or that are being handled without a defense lawyer.

Sometimes, residents need help with domestic violence protective orders.

"Uitallrutkellriik calluallrak," she explains. "People who live together that are fighting."

Garrison grew up in the small village of Eek near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Her parents, Johnny and Olive Hawk, spoke Yup'ik and English in the home.  Her daughter is growing up learning both English and Yup'ik too.

About 10,000 Alaska Native people speak Yup'ik, according to the UAF Alaska Native Language Center.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.