Tribal School Could Lose Language Program

 [ound of children singing]

The tune is familiar, but the words are pure Alaskan. The children attend the Chickaloon Tribe’s Ya Ne Dah Ah school near Palmer. The school is owned and operated by the tribe, and has structured it’s curriculum to include Alaska Native culture programs and Ahtna language instruction. Jodie Willcox, the school’s education director says the school is entirely grant funded, and increased competition for language rejuvenation programs is fierce… Ya Ne Dah Ah did not get a hoped for grant this year, and now it’s language program is threatened.

Willcox says the school applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for funds to continue the school’s mission of educating tribal students and area children of all ethnicities. But the BIA replied that a 1995 ban against use of BIA funds to support elementary and secondary schools in Alaska is still in place.


” And there are millions available to our schools, not just our school, but schools throughout the state, that we cannot access because of that rider in Congress, it makes no sense. It just doesn’t make sense. We’re a state that has a huge population, and yet we are a state that is underfunded.”

 Willcox says lack of funds has forced the school to cut one language instructor position.

Ray Barnhardt, a member of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, cross cultural and indegenous studies graduate programs, says the 1995 ban is a result of a 1975 legislative mandate to establish 21 Regional Education Attenane Areas, thereby dissolving the State Operated School System. A court decision a year later led to the creation of village high schools in rural Alaska to be implemented by the REAA’s. The state then agreed to assume funding responsibility for Alaska schools through the REAA’s , and BIA funds were cut.

“It is problematic, because the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which back prior to the mid 1970s was providing funds for schools in Alaska. That was discontinued and the state funds haven’t necessarily been able to provide alternative funding for a school such as this. Last spring, at the end of the last legislative session, a bill was past to establish an Alaska Native Language Commission.

 The Alaska Native Language Commission is in it’s infancy, with appointments pending. [Governor Parnell announced the names on Thursday]

Ya Ne Dah Ah began in 1992, and has has received national recognition for its work , gaining a Harvard Self-Determination Award Honoring Nations. The language curriculum is based on the concept of Total Physical Response, in which all commands are given in Ahtna.

But the knowledge rests with elders, says the one remaining language instructor, Jessie Boger.

“It’s really time is of the essence. It feels like, you got this impending doom, and you know you don’t have your elders forever, and, you know, they kind of hold the key for us to be able to progress.”

 The school brings in two elders from the Copper Basin to instruct the instructors, but lack of funds has put that progam on hold for the forseeable future.

Kari Shaginoff, the language project manager, says children who grow up knowing their Alaska Native roots have a strong self-concept

“Later on in life, they will have the values of our people. It’s ingrained in them. We kept them close. They know how to be with elders, they know how to be with younger kids. What I notice with my children is the confidence, and they don’t follow these cliques in school. In their little group of friends, they keep that.. who they are. I thank the school for that, for showing my kids and showing myself that, being a Native person, you can be proud of who you are. “

School education director Willcox says when funding is secured, the language program will resume. I’m Ellen Lockyer

APTI Reporter-Producer Ellen Lockyer started her radio career in the late 1980s, after a stint at bush Alaska weekly newspapers, the Copper Valley Views and the Cordova Times. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Valdez Public Radio station KCHU needed a reporter, and Ellen picked up the microphone.
Since then, she has literally traveled the length of the state, from Attu to Eagle and from Barrow to Juneau, covering Alaska stories on the ground for the AK show, Alaska News Nightly, the Alaska Morning News and for Anchorage public radio station, KSKA
elockyer (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8446 | About Ellen

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