Being Young In Rural Alaska: Learning Indigenous Language

This week we’re bringing you the first in a new reporting series from the producers of Kids These Days! In twelve reports from across the state, they’re asking the question: “What’s it like to be young in rural Alaska?” Today, Sarah Gonzales in Kake and Anne Hillman in Barrow find out why teaching indigenous language to children is so important.

SARAH GONZALES: Efforts to teach Alaska Native languages to kids aren’t exactly new in Alaska – in many places, it’s been done in some form or another for several decades. But in some places across the state, there is a new sense of urgency — as elders pass away, there are fewer fluent speakers, and more and more, the link between speaking the language, feeling connected to culture, and overall wellness is being understood.

ANNE HILLMAN: So schools that have for years taught a little Inupiaq or Tlingit are stepping up their efforts, and trying new methods.

[Natural sound: Girl reading numbers in Inupiaq while teacher says “eee” (yes)]

AH: Barrow Middle school language teacher Beverly Hugo sits with a student showing her cards with what look like random tally marks on them. She’s helping the girl learn to identify and say Inupiaq numerals. Instead of looking like typical Arabic numerals, they are combinations of diagonal lines. The number system is based on 20, the number of a person’s fingers and toes.

[Hugo] “Our culture has used the body as a counting numeral base….” 

AH: Hugo’s Barrow middle school class is part of the North Slope Borough’s efforts to revitalize the Inupiaq language using a computer program called Viva. The students listen to words over the computer then select the matching picture. When they get enough right, they practice saying them out loud with Hugo. She says the program’s focus on listening and speaking is very different from how the language used to be taught.

[Hugo] “The previous 30 years of the Inupiaq language program the students learned to read and write but they weren’t comprehending what they were reading and writing about.”

AH: Now, some of the students, like Vernon Elavgak, are using the language for practical reasons – like whaling with his family.

[Anne in classroom] So when you’re out in the camp, out on the ice, do you use some of the Inupiaq words you learned here? [Vernon]Yes. [Anne] Like which ones? [Vernon] [speaks in Inupiaq] like if I see one on the out on the water and if its like on the top and then going back down…”

AH: About twelve hundred miles south of here, students in Kake, Alaska are also learning their indigenous language. Tlingit.

[Classroom sound, child counting from one to ten in Tlingit] 

SARAH GONZALES: In Falen Mills classroom in Kake, third grade students practice their numbers and recite the colors in Tlingit.

[Student says colors in Tlingit] “Síagw·at yex yatee is brown, hemlock bark, Xíaan yex yatee is red, fire”

SG: The children learn that each color is associated with something in the natural world.  Gray is baby seagull, green is green rocks – they are being taught more than just words – they are also learning about their history, culture and the environment.

SG: The number of people in Kake who can converse in Tlingit has shrunk from 70 speakers in 2000 to just 24 in 2012. There is an urgency for kids to learn from those who can still speak Tlingit. So, about two years ago, with funding from the local  tribal government, students in 1st through 8th grades started spending 30 minutes a day – every day – learning their language.

[Jade] “If they spoke Tlingit back then they would get in big trouble. Sometimes they would get sent home or whipped. So they didn’t get to speak Tlingit, but now they’re letting us speak it so we can pass it on to our children and stuff.”

 SG: How they learn their language varies by age.

[Sarah in 1st grade classroom] “What game are we going to play?” [Child] “Heads up seven up!” [Sarah] “How does it go? What are the rules?” [Child] “You put your [Tlingit word for thumbs] up…” …ambient of children explaining rules…]

SG: Falen’s first graders play games and sing songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Tlingit. While in Ruth Demmert’s older, 7th and 8th grade class, the students are learning to introduce themselves – a Native tradition that acknowledges tribe, clan, moiety, grandparents and parents.

[Jacqueline Bennum] “speaking in Tlingit… is my clan. I’m Jacqueline Bennum and I’m in the 8th grade…”

SG: Demmert has been teaching Tlingit in Kake since 1974. In her decades of teaching she has learned that helping kids to learn their language is ultimately about instilling confidence.

[Demmert] “I think it’s real important for them because they are going to go through life and culture and they aren’t going to look like the rest of the world. And people are gonna ask them well what tribe or nationality are you, do you know anything of your language or culture. I think it’s real important for self esteem.”

AH: While in Barrow, Pearl Brower, president of Illisagvik College, says it’s all about understanding the nuances of culture.

[Brower] “A culture’s language kind of imbues everything about that culture. When someone speaks in your own language, there are so many pieces to it. It’s not just words. There are intonations, meanings you don’t get.”

SG: Alaska Native children in Barrow, Kake and all over the state are learning their indigenous language for reasons much larger than school credit.

AH: Like, knowing where they come from, and developing a sense of belonging, a strong identity.

SG: The ability to converse with elders and then teach a new generation.

AH: To speak and understand while working on a whaling boat.

SG: And, as this 1st grader put it:

[Boy] “The reason why we like to speak Tlingit is it saves our souls.”

AH: Reporting from Barrow, I’m Anne Hillman.

SG: And reporting from Kake, I’m Sarah Gonzales.

This reporting series is a production of the Content Producers Guild and is made possible through funding from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement program. For more photos and information please visit

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mail (at) kidsthesedays (dot) org | About Sarah

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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