Unangax̂ elder hopes to inspire Alaska Natives to learn their language

Oct 16, 2019

Sally Tugidam Ayagaa Swetzof (Unangax) gives the elder keynote address Tuesday, October 15, 2019, at Elders and Youth at the Carlson Center, Fairbanks, Alaska. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KNBA)

At the 2019 Elders and Youth Conference, the running theme is “Language is Our Superpower." The elder keynote speaker Sally Tugidm Ayagaa Swetzof (Unangax̂) talked about the importance of keeping Unangam Tunuu alive.

Swetzof was born before Alaska gained statehood. Growing up in Atka, Unangam Tunuu was her first language.

“It wsa the language always spoken at home and in the village when I was growing up,” she said from the mainstage. “Nobody spoke English unless they were talking to the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) teachers or some other non-speakers.”

Only when she started school that she began to learn English. At first her oldest sister taught her some simple phrases. But later she says, post-contact settlers began imposing strict rules against speaking Indigenous languages.

She says at first the students spoke Unangam Tunuu at home, and English at school. But as those students became adults, school officials convinced them that their children would be better off in the “modern world” only speaking English. She spoke a bit about it later. She calls it a type of brainwashing

“To think that if I used my Unangam Tunuu,  I wouldn't succeed in the modern world,” Swetzof said. “Unfortunately, you know we know we wanted to succeed so we believed them when we shouldn't have.” 

She says language teams and Aleutian island Native organizations have been working hard to revitalize Unangum Tunuu. Language helps support culture and allows the Unangax people to maintain their lifeways.

“Our langauges are a direct connection between us who are here today and our ancestors who lived in each generation before us. I want each and every one of our youth and elders to remember who we are and where we come from. This is our homeland.”

She says Alaska Native people need to work together to keep our languages alive.

“We all need to learn and speak our own Native languages. Without our language, we lose our culture and our Identity. We can’t let that happen."