Columns 2014

Alaska’s indigenous languages

I grew up in an Italian family in an Italian neighborhood being taught by mostly Italian nuns. The mere sound of the language still sends me back to those years in an instant. The cadence of English spoken with an Italian accent is all I need to have my nonna’s face pop up in my brain, her grey hair in a bun, clad in perpetual mourning black with always, always an apron to protect her only weekday dress.

The sound of a language’s rhythm and flow is one of our earliest memories. Long before we focus on a face or understand a word, we absorb the sounds. They come to mean home and family in a way little else can. Viewed from this context, we should all be able to understand the critical importance that Alaska Natives place on the survival and recognition of their languages as central to who they are, where they’ve come from and who they hope to become. The sounds of their languages are the sounds of their ancestors going back through time. The words of their languages describe their environment with a precision to which no other languages can aspire. Where English needs many words to describe snow to be used for building an igloo, Inupiaq has one. In fact, Inupiaq has many words for snow, each describing a very specific type. In English, we use one word for snow and beyond that, simply pull the covers up higher and add a log to the fire.

Language is the repository of the collective knowledge of its people’s culture. When it dies, much of the history and wisdom of the culture may also die. That in and of itself is a tragedy. But more than that, losing the sounds that first entered your consciousness as you suckled at your mother’s breast, losing the accents of the language spoken by the first people you remember as a child who loved you and cared for you – losing that when you lose your language is an extremely personal loss and one that cannot easily be overcome.

A bill recently passed by the Alaska State Legislature recognizes twenty Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state. This puts those languages on par with English, which was made the official language of the state in 1998. While the bill imposes no requirements on local governments or organizations to conduct business in any of the indigenous languages, it is at least a symbolic recognition that before America “bought” Alaska from Russia, there were people here totally unaware the land was for sale that spoke a variety of languages honed by the circumstances of their environment.

I first moved to Alaska in 1972 when most of Alaska’s indigenous peoples still lived under third world circumstances or worse. They’d been forced to abandon their traditional routine of following game for food and warmth by a government that demanded that their children go to school, necessitating that they live near a school full time. The stories of these schools have now become part of the common and perceived wisdom as places where Alaska Natives were treated as less than full human beings in their own land. The horror stories of their treatment if they tried to speak their Native tongues are legendary. The resentment created by those school days spills over even today into how many Alaska Natives view Western culture.

If you had told me all those years ago that I would see a resurgence of cultural pride and identity to the extent that I have over the past 40 years, I would have been incredulous. Yet Alaska Natives now possess the clout to get the state legislature to recognize their languages as an important part of this state’s past and present. I guess when I first arrived here I had no idea of just how bright and tenacious and patient Alaska Natives could be.

Today’s Alaska Native children not only have the chance to learn in their Native tongue, but their non-Native friends have the opportunity to learn right by their sides. In a time when indigenous languages are disappearing with alarming frequency around the world, this is truly one place where Alaska seems to be ahead of the curve in recognizing the rich culture within its boundaries and acknowledging the importance of that cultural heritage.

As my Inupiat friends would say, Aarigaa!