“Language goes hand-in-hand with culture. You cannot have culture without a language,” she said. “If you lose your language, you lose your culture.”
She lamented the Eyak peoples’ loss of their language. The last native speaker fluent in Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008.
“Words convey more than what you can show with your body,” Monture said. She then relayed a story about Little Rabbit, whose passionate song was beating from his heart, not his head, as the other animals discovered. She closed by tying in the conference’s three themes: Culture, Language and Identity, saying they all go together.
The conference’s emcee, Allison Warden, has a special place for learning Native language in her heart. The Fairbanks-raised performer, who now lives in Anchorage, creates rap-music videos in Inupiaq, which she is in the process of learning. She also has a Facebook page for the “Inupiaq phrase of the day.”
Her mother is a native Inupiaq speaker, and Warden says calling her mom and practicing with a buddy have helped her move forward in her language learning.
“I decided, ‘I really want to learn to speak my native language. I want to know what that feels like, I want to know if my thought processes are different, if my day feels different, how much more of the values that I’ll understand,’ you know, the deeper meaning of the values if I just learn to speak my language,” she said.
Warden described how she and her learning partner were on a walk on the beach where they had vowed only to speak Inupiaq – there were long silences, she said.
“We sat down on the beach on a piece of driftwood and we’re looking out on the ocean and … a word and a sentence came to my mind about the weather. And I could feel myself starting to think in my own language. It was a wonderful feeling,” she said.
Warden says she dreams of a world where all Alaska Natives can speak their Native languages. “(The Youth) have all the brainpower and energy to actually set learning their language as their goal and achieving it. They’re so smart and so connected to their communities and they have family members and resources that they could within a number of years, actually be fluent.”
She added that as more people learn it, there will be a greater incentive, especially for younger people, to learn the language, because it will be another way to communicate with their friends.
On the first night of the conference, the elders and youth had a relay race in which a young person had to go across the room, learn a Native word from an elder, run back to their group, teach another youth the word, and that youth had to come say it back to the elder before they got another word. Warden said the elders were excited to hear their language spoken by young people.
“They were tickled to the very core of their being.” But, she said, the youth will have to ask the elders to find out how helpful they will really be.
“The youth have to do the work. It’s work to learn your language. They have to make the commitment and do the work and realize that they can actually do it; they can actually learn it if they apply themselves,” she said.
In an afternoon workshop session, Warden worked with youth and elders on ways to facilitate learning of the Native languages. In “Reclaiming Our Languages, Reclaiming Ourselves,” groups of about six to eight people got together and brainstormed questions like How to keep teaching youth their Native languages, What are some obstacles that youths find in learning their languages, and How to overcome those obstacles.
All groups agreed that early exposure and education was important to teaching young children their language. Many groups expressed the importance of talking to infants while still in the womb. “The child eats what the mother eats; the child drinks what the mother drinks; the child hears what the mother hears,” said one elder. He added that the mother is the best teacher.
All groups agreed that speaking to children in Native languages would help them become fluent. Other suggestions included incorporating the languages into the schools, either by smaller means like Show-and-Tell, or by full immersion.
In the final question of the workshop, Warden asked elders to explain whether they acted or felt different when speaking and thinking in their Native language.
“I’m not fluent yet, but I have a feeling that when I am, I’ll be walking to the beat of a different drum,” she said.
Contact Kortnie Westfall at firstname.lastname@example.org