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YOUR WORLD

Saving Our Language

Native languages in Alaska are in danger of disappearing. Students at one school are trying to keep theirs alive.

Like most kids, Ikusek Nicolai learns math, reading, and science in school. But her music class is probably not what you’d expect. Ikusek and her classmates sing in a language most people don’t understand. During each song, some students dance while others play drums.

“Sometimes it gets very loud when everyone is singing and drumming, but it’s fun,” says Ikusek, who’s in third grade. “I like to dance with the younger kids because I get to teach them the moves.”

But this class isn’t just for fun. It’s part of an effort to save a language that could soon disappear. Students at the school in Bethel, Alaska, are taught in Yup’ik, the language their ancestors spoke.

Yup’ik is one of 20 Native Alaskan languages in danger of being lost by the end of this century. The mission of Ikusek’s school is to prevent that from happening.

“The best way to save a language is to teach the young people,” says Roy Mitchell. He is an expert on Alaska’s Indigenous, or native, languages.

Native Alaskan students at a U.S. government school in 1906

Vanishing Words

There was a time when everyone in the area that is now Alaska spoke a language other than English. For centuries, the vast region was home to tens of thousands of Indigenous people. More than 25 languages were spoken among the groups.

The first white settlers arrived from Russia in the 1700s and claimed the area as a colony of Russia. Several Native languages, including Yup’ik, adopted some Russian words. But Native languages were still the main ones spoken in Alaska.

That changed in the years after the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867. The U.S. government wanted to force Native Alaskans to give up their culture—including their languages. The government set up schools that forbade Native children from speaking any language other than English. 

“Students were punished if they used a Native language,” explains Mitchell. “They were made to stand in corners, and their mouths were washed out with soap.”

Ikusek Nicolai performs a traditional Yup’ik dance with fans made of feathers.

Alaska wasn’t the only place where this happened. Across the U.S., Native American students were not allowed to speak their own languages in schools.

As generations passed, fewer Native Alaskans learned the languages of their ancestors. Some languages disappeared completely. When the last fluent speaker of a language dies, the language vanishes with that person. The language isn’t all that is lost. 

Native languages aren’t just for conversation. They developed together with the culture and traditions of the community that speaks them. Losing a Native language means losing the Native culture too.

Attitudes about English-only education started to change in the 1960s. The U.S. government created programs for bilingual instruction in many public schools across the country. In Alaska, some schools began to teach in Native languages—but only for short periods of the day.

Then in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act. The law promised to “preserve, protect, and promote” Native languages in the United States. In the years since, Congress has given more funding to schools to teach Native languages.

Students at the school learn the traditional music (top) and language (bottom) of their ancestors.

Learning the Language

The Native American Languages Act paved the way for a woman named Ayaprun Jones to open a new school in Bethel in 1995. It was the first school in Alaska in which all students were taught in both Yup’ik and English. At the time, most kids in Bethel understood very little Yup’ik.

“Students were learning little bits of language here and there,” says Jones. “But Yup’ik wasn’t being taught for students to learn how to communicate.”

Jones named the school Ayaprun Elitnaurvik (ah-yuhp-ruhn lit-now-vik). The name combines her first name with the Yup’ik word for “school.” Students at the school are taught only in Yup’ik from kindergarten through third grade. No English is spoken in class. By the time students reach fifth grade, half their classes are taught in English and the other half in Yup’ik.

But the kids are learning more than just a language. Fifth- and sixth-graders take a class called “The Ways of Living.” They are taught many of the skills their ancestors once used to survive in southwestern Alaska. They learn how to sew mittens, to ice fish, to hunt, and more.

“The kids need to say, ‘I’m proud to be Yup’ik,’” says Jones. “You don’t get pride when you don’t speak your language or practice your culture.”

Hope for the Future

Despite the school’s efforts, there’s a long way to go to revive Alaska’s disappearing languages. Experts estimate that less than 4 percent of people in the state speak a Native language.  

Because so few people speak these languages today, Alaska Governor Bill Walker declared a language emergency in the state this summer. His order calls for all Alaskan public schools to promote Native languages.

Jones says teaching the languages to the youngest generation of Alaskans is the key to solving the problem.

“They are the ones who will be holding on to our culture when we are gone,” says Jones. “They are the future.”

Continue the Learning Journey

Ikusek Nicolai is a student just like you. Write Ikusek a letter to learn more about her language, culture, and how her school might be different from yours. You can ask her questions and share things that you found interesting about her story. Be sure to include some Yup’ik phrases you learned in the “Speak Yup’ik” chart! Then ask an adult in your family to help you mail the letter to Ikusek at her school, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, in Bethel, Alaska. 

VIDEO
Speaking Yup’ik in School

Watch a video of students in Alaska practicing their native language.

After watching the video, interview a relative, neighbor, or friend about their cultural heritage. This can include traditions, values, languages, and skills that have been passed down through the years. Here are some examples of questions you could ask:

  • Did you or any of your ancestors live in countries other than the U.S.? 
  • Does your name have a special or specific meaning? 
  • What traditions do you have? Why are those traditions important to you? 
  • Are there any special items or dishes that represent your heritage?

Record your interview and then share it with the rest of your family.

SLIDESHOW
Design a Brochure

Here’s how to share information with others in a fun way. 

Reread the sidebar “A Great Land.” What’s special about the state you live in? Click on the slideshow above to learn how to create a brochure, or pamphlet, that will share important and interesting facts about your state! With an adult in your family, use the internet, books, or visit a local library to help you with your research.

This article was written by Tricia Culligan for Scholastic News magazine.

Image Credits: Katie Basile Photography (header); Katie Basile Photography (Ikuksek Nicolai); University of Washington Libraries Special Collections (native students); Katie Basile Photography (students at school); Jim McMahon (map)