Speak like a person: Alutiiq language program develops materials, speakers

Published in Indian Country Today in July 2008.

Kodiak, Alaska — On the video screen, Phyllis Peterson, an Alutiiq elder, laughs with delight as she speaks in her indigenous language. She is describing how to prepare one of her favorite traditional foods, a mixture of dried fish and nice fat maggots — as delicious as ice cream, she says, sighing rapturously.

The video is part of the Qik’rtarmiut Alutiit Language Program, a language-preservation effort on Kodiak Island, explained the presenter, Susan Malutin, an Alutiiq field researcher for the program. Malutin is shown near right with collaborator Alisha Drabek; both are from the Native Village of Afognak. Under the auspices of the project, which is housed in the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, in downtown Kodiak, elders (shown at bottom) are taped telling stories and providing other cultural information in their own language. By next summer, a Web portal will be created where language students can access the material, according to Malutin.

         The local language, also called Sugt’stun, which refers to speaking “like a person,” has just 35 elderly speakers left on Kodiak Island, said language program manager April Laktonen Counceller, Alutiiq, shown near left at the head of the table, next to Malutin. Since 2004, the project has attempted to halt that decline with a range of resources, including books and DVDs for children and adults, posters and games. A popular Alutiiq Word of the Week program uses multiple media — public radio, a local newspaper, email, RSS feed and fax — to disseminate words and their cultural context, and a master-apprentice program connects elders and learners in an immersion experience, two hours a day, five days a week.

            “We’ve gone from almost nothing to a substantial list of language materials,” said Counceller. “There were efforts to revive our language in the 1980s and 90s, but they didn’t catch on. When we started out, there were just a few resources, including a dictionary that was difficult to use unless you understood the ablative case and other obscure grammatical concepts. It was really intended for a linguistics class, not for people who wanted to learn to speak Alutiiq.”

            Language preservation is as much about creativity and change as it is about enshrining the past, said Counceller. To make Alutiiq relevant for younger speakers, she and her colleagues develop words for modern objects and ideas. “If our language had been widely spoken all along, we’d already have terms for “computer,” “iPod” or “road rage,” she said. “It wasn’t, so we’re inventing them.”

            To guide the program, the Qik’rtarmiut Alutiit Regional Language Advisory Committee meets bimonthly at the Alutiiq Museum. The group includes representatives of the villages (also called tribes) and the Native corporations as well as other interested persons.

Over the years, the funding has come from the National Science Foundation and the Administration for Native Americans, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The language program has also consulted experts, including Dr. Stephen Greymorning, Arapaho, who has long worked to maintain his traditional language.

Malutin found Greymorning’s visual materials especially inspiring. She recalled watching Arapaho students describe an array of pictures in ever-more complex terms, demonstrating that their facility was growing without having to resort to the English language as an in-between step. This concept — from image directly to traditional language — became the basis of an Alutiiq picture dictionary, which includes words illustrated by drawings by artist and writer Alisha Drabek, Alutiiq from the Native Village of Afognak.

Right now, there’s little exposure to Alutiiq in schools on Kodiak Island. However, when the materials are presented to children, the results are dramatic. “They’re little sponges,” said Malutin. “They quickly learn to make sentences and engage in conversation.”

That means the next logical next step is a preschool immersion program. “But we can’t create one until enough apprentices from the master-apprentice program have achieved proficiency and are comfortable teaching,” said Counceller. “Then we’d have to figure out how to partner with one of the villages, since the museum isn’t in a position to open a preschool.”

Going forward, the language program participants are thinking strategically. “Rather than allow grants programs to dictate our efforts, we’re figuring out what we need to do to save Alutiiq, then applying for funding for exactly those activities,” said Counceller. “It’s about taking control of our language.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo at top by Stephanie Woodard; other photos courtesy the Qik’rtarmiut Alutiit Language Program.

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