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10/21/14 - Value, importance of preserving Native languages emphasized at Elders & Youth conference

"Haa shagoon ... it's our ancestors and future generations, everything we were and everything we will be."

About 1,300 people gathered at the Dena'ina Convention Center in Anchorage yesterday for the start of the 30th annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference. A keynote address by 17-year-old Devlin Anderstrom of Yakutat set the tone for the day. He gave his 9-minute talk in the Tlingit language, a rare ability for someone his age, then in English. Most fluent Tlingit speakers are in their 60s and up. He says one reason for his strong interest is that some cultural values and ideas can only be truly expressed in their original language, giving the example of the Tlingit word "Haa shagoon," saying "it's our ancestors, and at the same time, it's the future generations, everything we were and everything we will be. It's a hard concept to explain."

The emphasis on language preservation continued with talks given by members of the Alaska Native Language Preservation Council, who described recommendations they've developed for the Governor and Legislature. Annette Evans-Smith, Council chair and the director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, described the need for a statewide database of information that would let people learn from the success of others.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Yup'ik linguistics professor Dr. Walkie Charlie says some regions of the state have well established organizations that foster language revitalization and education, while others have little such infrastructure. Still, he says Alaska Native youth have attitudes and world views, or an "unconsciously agreed upon set of socio-linguistic and cultural rules that nobody's ever going to take away from you," and that are the basis by which youth can learn to speak and embrace their heritage languages.

Elder James Sipary of Toksook Bay told the group of about a hundred people in a Yup'ik language circle your Native language tells a person who they are, and gives them strength, "It's your identify. It's your belief. It's your values."  

Andrew Jasper of Akiak challenged parents and grandparents to keep their language alive, saying it's their job, their responsibility, and their gift to their children and grandchildren.

The First Alaskans Elders and Youth Conference continues Tuesday and Wednesday.