Indigenous languages are a bedrock of Alaska Native culture, but they are disappearing fast

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of culture among Alaska Natives, but apart from a handful of exceptions they are endangered. 

There are 21 Indigenous languages officially recognized by the State of Alaska, but every year there are fewer proficient speakers of these as elders are lost and the power of Western culture exerts powerful influences among young people.

“The land we call Alaska is home to around two dozen Native languages, spoken in and near Alaska for many thousands of years. Each Alaska Native language is a treasure beyond value, holding cultural knowledge of a unique people, a unique history, and a unique way of viewing life,” the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council wrote in its 2020 report. 

However, “every Indigenous language in Alaska faces threats from colonial English-only practices, and nearly all of them are critically endangered,” the Council said in its latest report. 

The Council compiles a report to the governor and state Legislature every two years on the state of Indigenous languages. The language Council was formed by the state Legislature in 2012.

There are only rough approximations of the numbers of fluent speakers and their age ranges for each Alaska Native language, but surveys provide some indication. 

According to the Council’s 2020 report, one language — the Doogh Qunag of Holikackuk — now has no living proficient speakers. In the Dena’ina language of Southcentral Alaska, there are only five proficient speakers. In the Dihthaad Xt’een Ian Aandeeg language of Tanacross, in eastern Interior Alaska, there are only 10.

In the Ahtna language of the Copper River region, known as Koht’aene Kenaege, there are 15. Of the Tlingit language of Southeast Alaska, Lingit Yoo X’atangi, there are 60 proficient speakers.

The list goes on and on.

Read more: Anchorage Press

Hope for the Future: Alaskan Community Works to Revive Native Languages

Terri Burr hopped in her car, turning on the wipers to sweep the rain from her windshield. She began to drive and talk, barely looking down at the road she takes each morning to meet with her language mentor, John Reese, the 95-year-old, last fluent speaker of the native Alaskan language Shm’algyack in Ketchikan.

Burr stepped out of her car and into a creaking elevator in a fading teal apartment building. She pressed the button for the 11th floor where Reese lives alone in what he and his brother nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest, a nod to their family’s clan. The two have an agreement that before Burr enters the apartment, she calls out to Reese to let him know she has arrived.

“Nda wila waan,” said Burr. (How are you doing?)
“Aam. ‘Kam shta malshgn,” said Reese. (Good, come in and tell a joke.)

Burr, a heritage-language facilitator for the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC), has spent her mornings with Reese for the past eight years. She no longer hyperventilates on her way to these meetings–Reese has always been a strict teacher, and she long struggled with his high expectations–but she remembers her struggle during the first few years.

“The fear made me learn,” she said. “I had to prove myself every single day.”

Burr was determined to learn the native language, not only because of the burden she felt, but because of the panic she noticed in the elders.

“I could see the fierceness in his eyes,” Burr said of Reese. “He didn’t worry about how much time he had until he started working on the language. Then he developed a fear of how much time he had left.”

In September of 2008, when most of the fluent elders were in their 80s and 90s, KIC made it a top priority to save the community’s three languages: Shm’algyack, Xaad Kil, and ‘Lingit. They created a mentor-apprentice program, partnering fluent speakers with language learners. As of today, Ketchikan has one fluent speaker of Shm’algyack, Reese, two speakers of Xaad Kil, and one fluent speaker of ‘Lingit.

“If we don’t keep our language alive, then our culture dies,” said Joe Thomas, a fluent ‘Lingit speaker who lives in Saxman, a town next to Ketchikan. “Our culture, our language, the things that we do, the things that keep us going, die. We will be known statistically as a race that died, a culture that died. We’re already known as a culture that is dying.”

Read more: Pulitzer Center

With few fluent speakers left, young people are teaching Inupiaq as they learn it

The young teachers sparkle with energy in the classroom, but they also feel fear, guilt and disapproval as they teach the ancient Native language of Inupiaq to students on Alaska’s North Slope. Because they aren’t fluent themselves.

Teachers who spoke Inupiaq as a first language entered the classroom in the 1980s and now most have retired. With hardly any fluent speakers left under 50 years old, the North Slope Borough School District started hiring young teachers who were learning the language themselves.

“In my estimation, these are the bravest, most courageous people on Earth,” said Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, the district’s director of Inupiaq education. “With our first learner-teacher, the feedback we got from the community instantly was, ‘What are you doing hiring a non-speaker in the classroom to teach the language?’”

Read more: Alaska Dispatch News