Being Young in Rural Alaska:
Condensed by Native Village
[Alaska News Nightly host intro]:
Beginning today, we are
bringing you a new reporting series from the producers of
Kids These Days! In a series of twelve reports from all over
the state, they’re asking the question: “What’s it like to
be young in rural Alaska?” Today, series producer,
Gonzales in Kake
Anne Hillman in Barrow
find out why teaching indigenous language to children is so
SARAH GONZALES: Efforts to teach Alaska Native languages
to kids aren’t exactly new in Alaska – in many places, it’s
been done in some form or another for several decades. But
in some places across the state, there is a new sense of
urgency --- as elders pass away, there are fewer fluent
speakers, and more and more, the link between speaking the
language, feeling connected to culture, and overall wellness
is being understood.
ANNE HILLMAN: So schools that have for years taught a
little Inupiaq or Tlingit are stepping up their efforts, and
trying new methods.
[Natural sound: Girl reading numbers in Inupiaq while
teacher says “eee” (yes)]
AH: Barrow Middle school language teacher Beverly Hugo
sits with a student showing her cards with what look like
random tally marks on them. She’s helping the girl learn to
identify and say Inupiaq numerals. Instead of looking like
typical Arabic numerals, they are combinations of diagonal
lines. The number system is based on 20, the number of a
person’s fingers and toes.
[Hugo] “Our culture has used the body as a counting numeral
AH: Hugo’s Barrow middle school class is part of the
North Slope Borough’s efforts to revitalize the Inupiaq
language using a computer program called Viva. The students
listen to words over the computer then select the matching
picture. When they get enough right, they practice saying
them out loud with Hugo. She says the program’s focus on
listening and speaking is very different from how the
language used to be taught.
[Hugo] “The previous 30 years of the Inupiaq language
program the students learned to read and write but they
weren’t comprehending what they were reading and writing
AH: Now, some of the students, like Vernon Elavgak, are
using the language for practical reasons – like whaling with
AH: About twelve hundred miles south of here, students
in Kake, Alaska are also learning their indigenous language.
Classroom sound, child counting from one to ten in Tlingit]
SARAH GONZALES: In Falen Mills classroom in Kake, third
grade students practice their numbers and recite the colors
[Student says colors in Tlingit] “Síagw·at yex yatee is
brown, hemlock bark, Xíaan yex yatee is red, fire”
SG: The children learn that each color is associated
with something in the natural world. Gray is baby seagull,
green is green rocks – they are being taught more than just
words – they are also learning about their history, culture
and the environment.
SG: The number of people in Kake who can converse in
Tlingit has shrunk from 70 speakers in 2000 to just 24 in
2012. There is an urgency for kids to learn from those who
can still speak Tlingit. So, about two years ago, with
funding from the local tribal government, students in 1st
through 8th grades started spending 30 minutes a day - every
day – learning their language.
[Jade] “If they spoke Tlingit back then they would get in
big trouble. Sometimes they would get sent home or whipped.
So they didn’t get to speak Tlingit, but now they’re letting
us speak it so we can pass it on to our children and stuff.”
How they learn their language varies by age.
[Sarah in 1st grade classroom] “What game are we going to
[Child] “Heads up seven up!”
“How does it go? What are the
[Child] “You put your [Tlingit
word for thumbs] up…”
…ambient of children explaining
SG: Falen’s first graders play games and sing songs like
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Tlingit. While in Ruth
Demmert’s older, 7th and 8th grade class, the students are
learning to introduce themselves – a Native tradition that
acknowledges tribe, clan, moiety, grandparents and parents.
[Jacqueline Bennum] "speaking in Tlingit... is my clan. I'm
Jacqueline Bennum and I'm in the 8th grade…”
SG: Demmert has been teaching Tlingit in Kake since
1974. In her decades of teaching she has learned that
helping kids to learn their language is ultimately about
[Demmert] "I think it’s real important for them because they
are going to go through life and culture and they aren’t
going to look like the rest of the world. And people are
gonna ask them well what tribe or nationality are you, do
you know anything of your language or culture. I think it’s
real important for self esteem.”
AH: While in Barrow, Pearl Brower, president of
Illisagvik College, says it’s all about understanding the
nuances of culture.
[Brower] “A culture’s language kind of imbues everything
about that culture. When someone speaks in your own
language, there are so many pieces to it. It’s not just
words. There are intonations, meanings you don’t get.”
SG: Alaska Native children in Barrow, Kake and all over
the state are learning their indigenous language for reasons
much larger than school credit.
AH: Like, knowing where they come from, and developing a
sense of belonging, a strong identity.
SG: The ability to converse with elders and then teach a
AH: To speak and understand while working on a whaling
SG: And, as this 1st grader put it:
[Boy] “The reason why we like to speak Tlingit is it saves
AH: Reporting from Barrow, I’m Anne Hillman.
SG: And reporting from Kake, I’m Sarah Gonzales.
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