New class to learn Alaska Native languages opens
The Bristol Bay Native Corporation is offering free Dena'ina and Yugtun, or Yup'ik, online language classes through early February. Sugt'stun/Alutiiq classes ended earlier this month.
The Zoom classes are 30 minutes, once a week and are open to anyone. These classes cover some of the basics, like introductions. People can also take song and dance classes.
Atkiq Michelle Ilutsik-Snyder, one of the teachers, said the classes are important because each language reflects a distinct culture and worldview.
"Language is so connected to identity — that positive sense of identity for people," she said. "And the language really reflects the places that we come from and our ancestors.”
The class series started at the beginning of this month. Ilutsik-Snyder, who’s from Dillingham and Aleknagik, said they were well-attended, with 35 separate logins — a sign of the desire to learn the language.
“We had some schools and classrooms joining us,” she said. “We had some people just wanting to learn a little bit of Yup’ik who aren't from the region but live in Alaska and kind of want to respect the places that they're at and learn a little bit of the language. We've heard too from those that maybe grew up hearing the language and can maybe understand or have a little bit of that background, but aren't able to hold full conversations.”
She said that while virtual classes can be a challenge, they are a way for people to both learn and practice with others across the state. And that’s essential to providing people with access to the language and a support network for learning it.
“It's been such a struggle for me to learn Yup’ik,” she said. “I feel like the students in our region should be able to learn in the language of the region, and should have that opportunity to grow up hearing the language. It shouldn't require those of us to learn our heritage language, the language of the places that we grew up, to spend $800 plus dollars to take a university class to learn our own language.”
Ilutsik-Snyder said the classes are just the beginning, and revitalization needs to be a community effort.
“From schools, community, different regional entities, local entities to really revitalize and say, ‘Our languages are important. And our students should be able to learn in the language of the place and in their heritage language,’” she said.
Ilutsik-Snyder hopes that after this class series ends, the momentum to learn Yup’ik continues.
But language isn’t the only part of the Native corporation’s initiative. Yup’ik dancing and singing classes are available as well.
Margie and Aaron Frost teach yuraq, or Yup’ik dancing, virtually from Togiak. They both attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That’s where Aaron first started to practice yuraq.
“When I first saw it, I immediately fell in love with it,” he said. “And I started to dance and got to know the songs and started to sing. And I thought I was loud until I sat next to somebody from the North Slope area. And he was loud. And he showed me where to sing from. And that just kind of stuck with me.”
Margie is from Bethel, where yuraq plays a big role in the community. But while she was exposed to it throughout her life, she was only a spectator until she started classes as a university student back in the 90s and joined the Inu-Yupiaq dance group.
“That's where my love for yuraq really grew as far as me dancing, ‘cause I've always loved it. I just never participated,” she said. “But after taking Theresa John's class, that's when I came out of my shell and I just started dancing and then Inu-Yupiaq just exploded my love for yuraq and sharing it.”
Margie said that interest in yuraq across Bristol Bay has waxed and waned.
“But it seemed like within the past year I've seen a growth and now I even hear about Manokotak dancing, which is really exciting,” she said.
Margie said Zoom has helped dance groups and students in different communities connect – a silver lining of forced separation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The beauty of Zoom is that it's still kind of slow here. But going to the [Bristol Bay] Youth Leadership Forum and seeing all those high schoolers how excited they were, that just gave us more motivation to keep going. So that's why we're still teaching,” she said. “And I think, through Zoom, we're reaching more people. And it's allowing us to keep going.”
The last yuraq class is Jan. 25 — you can join by clicking here. Language classes are free and take place every week through early February. Find information about the Yugtun classes here and the Dena’ina classes here.