By Allan Hayton
The 2016 Alaska Language Summit organized by the office of Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, and hosted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, took place February 22-23 at the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau.
The event brought together leaders in Alaska Native language revitalization together with representatives from Hawaiian, Mohawk, and Maori languages. Guest lecturers Dr. Larry Kimura (University of Hawaii Hilo), Dr. Kēhaulani ʻAipia-Peters (‘Aha Punana Leo), Jeremy Tehota’kera:ton Green (Mohawk Six Nations), and Hana Mereraiha (Maori) shared their experiences, knowledge, and strategies for language revitalization with the summit.
This language summit was among the first of its kind here in Alaska. One of the major goals of the summit was to build a statewide network of support for those working in language revitalization. Kreiss-Tomkins, while working on the Alaska Native official languages bill, noticed that “people were independently developing models and practices in different regions of the state, and we felt there’s a lot of opportunity for people in different parts of Alaska to learn from each other.”
Attendees shared their concerns about the decline of Alaska Native languages, and also their hopes for the future. Dr. Edna Ahgeak MacLean, commissioner of Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture for the North Slope Borough, stated that the Indigenous languages of Alaska are “a source of wealth,” and that “no responsible leader would stand idly by while one of their riches is dwindling away.”
X’unei Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, spoke about a hopeful vision for the future of Alaska Native languages where we could look back and ask ourselves, “Hey, remember how much trouble we were in? Remember how scary it was to think we might lose our languages?”
During the language summit there were presentations involving different education models from Sally Samson and Agatha John-Shields of the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School in Bethel (charter school), Nikaitchuat Ilisagvait immersion school in Kotzebue (private/tribal), and Brandon Locke of the Anchorage School District (public). Other participants shared their language revitalization efforts including developing pre-kindergarten learning materials, master-apprentice programs, creating immersion childcare centers, creating wikis and online language classes, and building “language nests.”
It was truly empowering hearing all of the different languages, songs, ideas, inspiration, and the support for one another. The work of language revitalization can seem like such an uphill battle at times, so it is good to know we are not alone in this work. I hope that there will be many more language summits like this one in the future. Hai’ shalak naii datthak. Tth’aii nihk’it gwiinzii gwitr’it t’agoh’in. Thank you all my relatives. Keep up the good work.