Keeping Alaska's "heart" languages alive: Native language experts share personal stories at the State Capitol
Alaska Native language experts shared their personal stories at the State Capitol on Friday. They came to talk with lawmakers and their staffers about their work on the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, but their main mission was to inspire those at the highest levels of government to support Indigenous languages.
Dr. Walkie Charles told the gathering he was taken away from his home in Emmonak and sent to a boarding school at the age of twelve. He said his mother only spoke the Yup’ik language, or Yugtun, and didn’t understand what happened to him.
“My mother just recently, she died nine years ago, finally told me that every time she heard a plane approaching to our village, that once a week, she was hoping I would be in that plane returning home. But I never did,” said Charles, who was sent more than a thousand miles away to the Wrangell Institute in Southeast Alaska, where Native languages were suppressed.
Charles not only lost his home and family on the Yukon but also what he calls his “heart language.” It wasn’t until he took classes in college to learn to read and write in Yugtun, that he reconnected to his language. Two years ago, Charles became the first Native director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Yaayuk Bernadette Alvanna-Stimpfle is originally from King Island, where she spoke only Inupiaq until kindergarten.
“I could remember being a non-English speaker at five-years-old,” said Alvanna-Stimpfle, recalling how she was made to sing, ‘I'm a little teapot, short and stout,’ and in my five-year-old Inupiaq mind, I say, ‘I am not a teapot.’”
Today she is director of Kawerak’s Eskimo Heritage program, based in Nome. She also teaches Inupiaq and is working towards her doctorate. Alvanna-Stimpfle is also a past chairman of the advisory council.
X’unei Lance Twitchell, a Native language professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, now heads the council.
“Alaska for a long time had been on a path of decided elimination of indigenous languages,” X’unei told the group. “There was intention, there was purpose, there was a well-orchestrated attack on our peoples.”
He said there are four different Indigenous language families in Alaska, with a total of 23 languages that include a few which are no longer spoken.
“We don't like the word extinct,” X’unei said. “We prefer dormant, because we've seen languages come back.”
X’unei says, with only 30 fluent speakers of Lingít, it hasn’t been easy to rescue his language, but it is possible.
“So, imagine if you could, if there were 30 speakers of English left in the world, imagine if you could, if the English language went three generations without creating a single new speaker,” X’unei said, “then imagine if you could, watching a child sit down at a table full of elders, who could then speak to that child. And that child understands them.”
X’unei says those elders had lived through a 70-year gap, without hearing any new speakers of Lingít, until this child approached them.
“We didn't tell her to. She just went and sat with the elders and they were laughing,” X’unei said. “I could just see the sparkle in their eyes to see a child, who can understand them.”
In his work as head of the Native language program at the University of Alaska Southeast, X’unei has helped to create a new generation of Lingít speakers.
Some of these success stories have come about since the legislature created the language preservation council in 2012.
The council produces a biennial report for the legislature and the governor. Its mission is to make Alaska Native languages a statewide priority and include them in the public school system. The council is also working to normalize the use of Indigenous languages, by restoring traditional place names and addressing historical trauma from language suppression.
X’unei says the lawmakers and their staffers still have an important part to play.
“Everybody who works in this building for the people, that when you walk through those doors every day, maybe you could just give yourself an affirmation,” he said. “And that affirmation is this: No language dies on my watch. No language dies on my watch.”