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Many of Alaska’s 20 Native Languages on Verge of Disappearing

December 23, 1991

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ When Sophie Borodkin of Cordova wants to speak her native Eyak, she has to call or visit her sister, Marie Smith.

They are the last people on Earth who remember the language.

A branch of the Athabaskan Indian family of languages and one of 20 native languages in Alaska, Eyak was spoken by villagers who lived along the eastern shores of Prince William Sound. Only 50 Eyaks remain, and only Borodkin, 80, and Smith, 72, of Anchorage, still speak their native tongue.

When they die, Eyak - the most endangered of Alaska’s native languages - also will cease to exist as a living language.

″We enjoy it,″ said Borodkin, a widow who grew up working in the Cordova fish canneries and later married a Russian Orthodox man. ″But we are getting away from it, not speaking it so steady.″

None of Bordokin’s children speak Eyak. Nor do her grandchildren. And that, say linquists, is the problem. Native children throughout Alaska are not learning the language of their ancestors.

Sixteen of Alaska’s native languages are at risk: Han, Haida, Eyak, Tanana, Tlingit, Dena’ina, Ahtna, Tanaina, Ingalik, Holikachuk, Tsimshian, Koyukon, upper Kuskokwim, upper Tanana, Kutchin and Aleut.

Some are spoken only by a handfull of people; others are spoken by a hundred or up to several thousand people. But many of the languages are not spoken by persons younger than 20, or 30, or even 50 years of age.

The Eskimo group of languages - Yupik, Central Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik and Inupiat - remain widely spoken by thousands of natives in northern and western Alaska. Though less at risk, however, they too have suffered from exposure to the dominant, English-speaking culture that arrived with the missionaries and fur trappers in the 1800s.

″People are in fact becoming alien to themselves,″ said Michael E. Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Only in the most remote Eskimo communities are children being raised to speak their language, Krauss said. In the communities where the other 18 languages are spoken, words and tales carrying a thousand years of oral history and tradition are being forgotten.

Krauss blames the public school system, the ubiquitous English-language programming on television and radio, and the belief among many residents - encouraged by years of religious and secular education - that native languages are not important.

He and his co-workers have written down all 20 languages, and have compiled dictionaries for some, including an Eyak-English dictionary which Bordokin said she keeps by her side.

Recording the language, though, is not the same as saving it.

″The challenge is to provide for their future as living traditions in the communities where they belong,″ he said.

In a step toward that goal, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, is sponsoring a bill in Congress to preserve Alaska native languages. The Senate has passed the bill; the House is now considering it.

Starting in 1992, it would provide $2.5 million a year for five years for grants to native villages or regional native corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The money would pay for language centers, media programs and training to encourage the use of native languages.

″We can watch most of them slowly die over the next century, or pull them back from the brink of extinction,″ Murkowski said recently at an Anchorage hearing on the bill. ″The frontline for the battle to save these languages will be in the families and communities of the native people themselves.″

Krauss and others believe that battle is still being fought and lost.

For decades, federal Bureau of Indian Affairs administrators in Alaska forced students in village schools to speak English, and punished them if they spoke their own languages.

Schools set up by Moravian, Catholic, Quaker, Episcopal and other missionaries sometimes tried to support natives languages, but the official government policy was assimilation, not protection, of local cultures.

Today, a lack of serious bilingualism in the schools is still a major problem, Krauss and others say.

State Rep. Georgianna Lincoln, a Koyukon Athabaskan Indian from the Interior village of Rampart, has introduced a bill in the Alaska Legislature that would require that all rural school districts provide local native language instruction.

Students in villages can tune in comprehensive cable TV lessons in Russian, Spanish and Japanese, Lincoln notes. But not Han. Not Tanana. And not Koyukon.

″Language is part of the essence of our whole being,″ she said. ″It just seems sinful that here we are teaching our children other languages that they will never use again, but our own native language ... is being lost.″

The real battle to save Alaska’s native languages is not taking place in the schools, but in the living rooms, experts say.

″The global media have descended into every house,″ Krauss said. Radio and satellite TV bring national network shows, urban-oriented advertising and numerous other reflections of the dominant English culture into even the most remote and tiny Eskimo, Aleut and Indian hamlets.

Krauss calls it ″cultural nerve gas,″ and he said it is destroying not only the languages, but the native cultures as well.

Cecilia Martz, a native Yupik speaker who teaches at the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in Bethel, said a big media campaign could help save the state’s disappearing languages.

The goal: to get families and leaders of small villages and regions to take more control over the process, to try to counteract years of negative thinking and destruction of the languages.

″There’s this mentality among the whole state that the school is responsible for teaching the language and continuing the language,″ said Martz, 47, who spoke only Yupik until she was 6.

″That mind-set has to be changed,″ she said. Children in Alaska should be hearing their languages on the radio and TV, and the families have to lead the way if that will ever happen.

Saving the languages while they still are alive ″can be done,″ Krauss said. ″The question is: Do we have the social conditions, the social will of the people?″

There are some recent signs of interest in erasing the mistakes of the past, and promoting bilingualism.

Tsimshian Indians on Annette Island in southeast Alaska have petitioned their school board for more bilingual instruction. And in October, the Roman Catholic Presbytery of Alaska passed a resolution formally acknowledging the church’s past mistakes. It held a ceremony to formally apologize to natives.

″We disavow those teachings which led people to believe that abandoning native culture was a prerequisite for being Christian,″ the church resolution stated. ″We deeply regret the church’s part in the destruction of native artifacts and the church’s part in the loss of native languages.″

Sophie Borodkin, too, laments the seemingly inevitable death of Eyak.

″I’m sorry we cannot teach our kids to speak,″ she said. ″But they don’t speak our language.″

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