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Strengthening Alaska Native Languages

The state of Indigenous languages in Alaska
By Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan)

laska Native people have faced social and cultural harm that includes epidemics, dislocations, language loss, boarding schools, and more. For decades, communities in every region of Alaska have held culture camps to preserve and restore their cultural heritage and language. The need for these opportunities has grown greater as Elders, who are community experts in language and customary practices, have passed away.

Language is a core foundation for Indigenous cultural identity and heritage, so the loss of Indigenous Elders has been extremely troubling, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The damage to Indigenous communities and language revitalization efforts has been devastating. In Kodiak, for example, from 2020 to early 2022, half of the first-language speakers of Kodiak Alutiiq passed away, leaving no speakers of the northern Kodiak dialect and approximately seventeen speakers of the southern dialect.

Additionally, the limited ability to meet face to face has affected language and cultural activities, especially for Elders who are less able to take part in Internet-based communication. Fortunately, this has become less of a problem thanks to COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

With all of these factors, it is a crucial time to preserve and revitalize languages that are endangered or in dormancy.

Defining Priorities

According to the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council (ANLPAC) 2022 Report to the Governor and Legislature, Alaska is home to more than twenty-three Indigenous languages.

Today, no Alaska Native languages are considered “safe” or merely “vulnerable” as defined by the council.

“We tweaked the definitions in a few spots,” says Roy Mitchell, staff research analyst for ANLPAC. “We had labeled what was previously listed as extinct to dormant, meaning there are no conversational speakers left. The shift at the council is really pushing to not buy into negative labels. We’ve been using dormant for a few years now, rather than say there are no speakers left [or extinct].”

Mitchell is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in Iñupiaq and a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley. He has been a student of Alaska Native languages since 1976, supporting Alaska Native languages in many regions throughout Alaska.

Mitchell explains that many non-Native people, including policy makers and teachers, may operate in ignorance of Alaska Native language loss or that in the past Alaska Native students were forbidden to speak their languages. The history of language suppression and loss is still felt with ongoing intergenerational trauma. The normalization of Alaska Native languages is key in addressing past decades of forced assimilation practices.

“The council has been asking for state government, both the executive and legislative branches, to actively make the survival of Alaska Native languages a high priority,” Mitchell says. “That continues to be a major issue. The state has and is continuing to do some things to improve the status of Alaska languages, but it is still nowhere close to the level that’s needed.”

Training and Technical Assistance

Federal program and grant support is available through the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), a program office of the US Department of Health and Human Services. ANA runs the Alaska Region Training & Technical Assistance (T/TA) Center that works to strengthen the capacity of Native organizations in Alaska to develop, apply for, and manage community-based projects that increase self-sufficiency. Alaska is a region of its own, along with T/TA centers for the entire Eastern, Western, and Pacific regions of the United States.

T/TA Center Technical Assistance Manager Larry Kairaiuak, who is Yup’ik, worked in grant management for the private sector and state government before joining the federal office.

“There does not seem to be a center within any federal programs like the free training and technical assistance centers that ANA has in its four regions,” Kairaiuak says. “We support state and federally recognized Tribes, our relatives in the Pacific Island state and territories, and in the continental United States. Being part of Alaska Region T/TA Center to provide guidance, support, and encouragement from the beginning of the application process to completion of an ANA funded project, that is extremely rewarding.”

ANA’s FY2021 appropriation was more than $57 million. In FY2020, ANA was able to provide approximately $47 million to community-based projects across the three main ANA programs: Social and Economic Development Strategies, Environmental Regulatory Enhancement, and Native Language Programs.

Status of Alaska Native Language Speakers

Inuit-Unangan Language Family

Inupiatun (Inupiaq): Estimated <2,500 highly proficient speakers in Alaska
Yupigestun / Akuzipigestun (St. Lawrence Island Yupik): Estimated < 1,000 highly proficient speakers.
Yugtun/Cugtun (Central Alaskan Yup’ik / Cup’ik): Estimated <10,000 highly proficient speakers.
Cup’ig (Nunivak Island [Yupik]): Data unavailable
Unangam Tunuu (UnangaX Aleut): <80 highly proficient speakers
Sugt’stun / Alutiit’stun (Sugpiaq/Alutiiq [Yupik]): About ~80 highly proficient speakers

Na-Dene Language Family

Dena’inaq’ (Dena’ina): 5 highly proficient speakers.
Denaakk’e (Koyukon): Data unavailable
Holikachuk: 0 highly proficient speakers.
Deg Xinag: 2 highly proficient speakers
Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim): <5 highly proficient speakers—perhaps as few as one or none.
Benhti Kokhwt’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana): 1 highly proficient speaker.
Sahcheeg xut’een xneege’ (Middle Tanana): 0 highly proficient speakers.
Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in): <250 highly proficient speakers
Hän: 2 highly proficient speakers in Alaska
Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aandeeg’ (Tanacross): <10 highly proficient speakers?
Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana): ~7 highly proficient speakers; about 25 proficient second-language speakers in Alaska
Koht’aene kenaege’ (Ahtna): ~25 highly proficient speakers.
dAxhunhyuuga’ (Eyak): 0 highly proficient speakers.
Lingít (Tlingit): ~50 highly proficient, first-language speakers plus ~20 highly proficient second-language speakers.
Wetał (Ts’etsa’ut): 0 highly proficient speakers.

Haida Language Family

Xaad Kíl (Haida): 3 fluent speakers in Alaska plus perhaps 2 highly proficient second-language speakers


Sm’algyax: 4 highly proficient speakers in Alaska
Source: Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Division of Community and Regional Affairs
The share for language programs totaled $13.7 million, split between $6.8 million for Preservation and Maintenance (P&M), $5 million for language grants such as Esther Martinez Immersion, and $1.9 million for Native Languages Community Coordination Demonstration projects.

The ANA P&M program provides funding for projects to support assessments of the status of the Native languages as well as the planning, design, restoration, and implementation of Native language curriculum. Projects take place in urban, rural, and reservation settings through materials development, training for language teachers, and direct instruction in and outside of a classroom.

Unagam Tunuu Achigassalix, or Teach the Aleut Language, is a P&M project that the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association is working on. It connects several language learners with two speakers, working to increase the number of speakers in the Aleutian region. This project started right before the COVID-19 pandemic, so in-person classes did not occur. They immediately adjusted to a method of virtual meetings so that the program could carry on.

Tamamta Liitukut, or Everyone is Learning, from the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, just completed a Native Language Community Coordination Demonstration project through ANA. It was a Kodiak Sugpiaq Alutiiq language education continuum project to increase the number of speakers and instruct young children at the same time.

“We want to see more projects funded throughout Alaska,” Kairaiuak says, “so that some of the challenges that our Tribes and communities face can have a platform to improve the conditions that hinder us from growing and enhances the lives of our communities.”

In a review of language projects that ended between 2015 through 2020, ANA has supported eighty-seven different languages across the United States and Pacific Basin. ANA funded projects for eighty Tribes and Alaska Native villages, thirty-five nonprofit organizations, eighteen K-12 schools, and eleven tribal colleges and universities.

Teaching Teachers

Students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School in Juneau preserve a bit of Tlingit language and culture the moment they learn their school’s name. It’s simply the Indigenous name of the place where Alaska’s capital city is situated, which translates as “Base of the Flounder’s River.”

Frank Kaash Katasse, from the Tlingit clan Tsaagweidí, is a teacher at the middle school. He is not only an educator but an award-winning actor, director, producer, improviser, and playwright. Katasse received his bachelor’s degree in theatre arts from the University of Hawai’i Mānoa. And his studies continued at UAS.

“It’s a very popular program, right up there with gym, art, music, and now Tlingit.”
“I received a grant called Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathway. This was through Sealaska Heritage Institute to go back to school,” Katasse says. “The program involved sending a cohort of people to go back to school at the University of Alaska Southeast and study Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian and learn to be teachers, resulting in a Type M Limited Teaching Certificate.”

The certificate in Indigenous Language Teaching prepared students to work in the growing language revitalization field, including within tribal organizations, tribal corporations, school districts, and nonprofit organizations.

In Katasse’s case, he was hired at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School in year two of the three-year grant. “I ended up learning through experience last year,” he says. “It was great, there’s something to be said about learning by jumping right into it.”

Juneau’s board of education recently approved new oral narrative standards for its Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy program. It is available to kindergartners through fifth graders in the Juneau School District. When the standards were adopted last November, the district’s director of teaching and learning support, Ted Wilson, told KTOO that the curriculum ought to expand to other age groups as fluent teachers become available.

“In other language programs, a lot of times the revitalization efforts are centered around clubs or something after school,” Katasse says, “where parents can come and participate or something. Here I am teaching about 150 Tlingit language learners. With that many students, it’s a bit too many to also include parents. It’s a very popular program, right up there with gym, art, music, and now Tlingit.”

Katasse reaches his students in class using various games, both online and board games. The students can also earn class “money” by answering questions, and then use the tokens to buy candies, stickers, and other small gifts. Students are having fun and learning Tlingit along the way.

Katasse admits there is much he still needs to learn. “I am an intermediate speaker at best,” Katasse says. “In the spring of 2020 after I was awarded my grant, that is when I began to study Tlingit, so my language proficiency is not that high, but it’s enough for me to teach. I am on my own journey as a Tlingit language learner too.”

Next for Katasse is preparing for Tlingit II. “For the upcoming year and those students moving forward,” Katasse says, “I have to figure out what I’m going to teach them. For language learners in middle school especially, we’re playing games and keeping them engaged. We want them to want to come back.”

Katasse notes that some of his 150 students never spoke any Tlingit at all, and some are not Alaska Native of any kind. That doesn’t matter, he says.

“It was such a beautiful experience when I began hearing the Tlingit language start to overflow into the halls and out of the classroom,” Katasse says, adding, “I would hear them making fun of each other in Tlingit.”

Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan) is a writer, playwright, and regular contributor to First Alaskans. This article was first published in Alaska Business,