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Indigenous Languages: A window into the human history of gratitude.

Tanacross River-Photo by Rhonda McBride
Rhonda McBride
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Although there are words in English that approximate those in Indigenous languages, they're really not equivalent. Many Alaska Native languages have words with other layers of meaning, closely tied to the subsistence way of life.

We sprinkle the words “thank you” throughout our daily discourse, but our collective memory has forgotten its origins in Old English to the word “think,” as in “I will think kindly of you for this” or “I will remember your kindness.”

Today, giving thanks is more reflexive than intentional. And as holidays go, Thanksgiving is fairly new, far removed from a time when expressing gratitude was a bigger part of daily life.

Speakers of Alaska’s Indigenous languages say they feel more ties to those times, due in large part to their close connection with the land.

For Ossie Kairaiuak, the word quyana, which means thank you in his Yup’ik language, Yugtun, has deeper layers of meaning – one with roots to a culture of sharing food, gathered from the land and the sea.

Kairaiuaik is part of Pamyua, one of Alaska’s most popular Indigenous music groups, known for its blend of traditional Yup’ik songs and drumming with African American harmonies.

Kairaiuaik’s music is inspired by his childhood in Chefornak, a community that sits on top of an expanse of tundra in Southwest Alaska. He says one of his first lessons on gratitude followed a successful seal hunt.

“As I got older, I was able to help my father more,” he said. “And I watched him butcher seals that my brothers had caught. “And then he would hand me the choice parts, which are the shoulders of the seal, and he would say, “Kita,” which means “here” in Yup’ik. Kita would be followed by instructions to deliver the meat to an elderly couple.

Kairaiuaik set out to their home with his hands full of seal meat and a heart that overflowed with joy.

“And I gently used my feet to knock on their door,” said Kairaiuaik, who was greeted by an outpouring of gratitude in Yugtun. “Quyanqvaa! Thank you so much.”

Kairaiuaik says, every quyana he heard was like a blessing that multiplied throughout his life, inspiring him and other hunters to return with food to share.

Kairaiuaik says it was a reciprocal, cyclical relationship that was almost sacred – that elders, when gifted with a piece of meat would often say, “Oh, boy. The one we never see has given us a gift,” a reference to the Creator.

X’unei’ Lance Twitchell says the word for thank you in Lingít was also an expression of love and humility.

“I think the word has ancient origins,” said Twitchell, who has dedicated his life to preserving and sharing knowledge about the languages and cultures of Southeast Alaska.

He says the word gunalchéesh is related to a verb about making something possible, as in “Haa tóoch lichéesh,” which means “I believe it’s possible.”

Twitchell says he and other language experts have a theory that gunalcheésh was shorthand for a longer phrase, “It would not be possible without you,” which also makes it a gesture of acknowledgement – a way of making someone feel loved and valued.

Twitchell says the word gunalchéesh also brings to mind elders he’s worked with and clan relationships.

“I think about the ways we can show gratitude and help one another, and the ways that we support each other, through our actions and through respect and love,” said Twitchell, who says the essence of gunalchéesh is kindness and love.

“Some of our elders like the late Kingeestí, David Katseek, used to talk about the power of this phrase, sometimes by dragging out the last syllable.”

The last syllable of the Gwich’in word, mahsi’choo, is also drawn out.

It isn’t just a casual thank you. “It’s mahsi’choo,” said Kay Wallis, drawing out the “choo,” which rhymes with the English word, “show.”

Wallis is a traditional healer who was born in Fort Yukon but raised in various foster homes around Alaska. She says “mahsi’choo” is a word that always connects her to her cultural identity.

“It isn’t just a casual thank you. It’s mahsi’ choo,” she said. “It means so much to me, your kindness.”

Wallis believes mahsi’choo is a word that radiates spiritual energy. She says her people’s long history of persevering through long, harsh Interior winters requires a spirit of gratitude – which her people have drawn upon to survive sickness, trauma and famine.

“I’m 78, and so when I talk about my elders, most of them have passed. But they all remember hunger. They remember the starvation period,” said Wallis, “And then when somebody would just share a bone with them, a moose bone, a caribou bone, a piece of fish,” she said, stopping to add the word, mahsi’choo, slowly and drawn out, as she put her hands to her chest and held them there.

Wallis says most of us today have never known such hardship and the importance of sharing whatever you have to give, no matter how little it is.

Mahsi’choo,” she repeated for emphasis. “It meant so much. You’re keeping me alive. You’re keeping my family alive. Thank you from my heart.”

Wallis says gratitude was once a way of life, where thanks were given at every opportunity.

“You thank the sun for going down and coming up,” she said. “Thank you for the light. We’re so grateful for the light. Thank you, Creator. Mahsi’ choo, Creator.”

Wallis says Thanksgiving is the forerunner of the solstice on December 21, when the sun’s rays return to warm the earth and infuse words like mahsi’choo, quyana and gunalchéesh with love, light and life.