Unangax̂ educators will teach Unangam Tunuu language class at UAA

The University of Alaska Anchorage will offer Unangam Tunuu courses — the Unangax̂ language — as part of its Alaska Native Studies coursework, starting this fall.

A woman with a headdress in front of some trees
Haliehana Stepetin (Unangax̂) is an instructor for the elementary course in Unangam Tunuu — the Unangax̂ language — at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the fall of 2021. (Photo by Jaiden Willeto)

Course instructor Haliehana Stepetin said it’ll be a regular part of the school’s offerings for the next two years.

“It’s really wonderful to include it in the Alaska Native Studies curriculum because it shows this density and it will hopefully teach more people about who we are and where we come from in our differing experiences and our similar goals of cultural revitalization presence,” Stepetin said. “And more than just that, but thriving.”

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Stepetin is Unangax̂ and a Ph.D. candidate in Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She will teach the course with help from her longtime mentor and Unangax̂ Elder Moses Dirks.

“I think this is our opportunity to try and convey to people that there are differences in language and cultures, so Unangax is so unique,” Dirks said. “With very few speakers, I think it’s important to pass it on to interested Unangax people that would be interested in taking it.”

Dirks is a longtime Unangam Tunuu linguist and has taught the language at Alaska Pacific University and University of Alaska Fairbanks to culture camps.

He said that for the last 10 to 20 years, he’s continued to seek out people willing to learn and document Unangam Tunuu.

“My hope always was to try to preserve the language, but everything was spoken in terms of verbal language and it was passed on from generation to generation. And nothing was documented,” Dirks said. “My primary goal was to document the true Unangam Tunuu and to keep the dialect separated so that they have their own identity in each of the villages.”

The course will be one of several Alaska Native language courses offered at the university through its Alaska Native Studies program.

In the past, Unangam Tunuu was taught at the university on a trial basis, but this will be the first time that it’s regularly taught at UAA.

Stepetin said the course will be offered virtually as a way to be more inclusive to Unangam Tunuu learners, including those that may live outside of Anchorage:

“I know that people aren’t going to get fluent in a semester or two, but the focus of language learning that Moses and I have been doing is fluent in conversations about the weather, conversations about who you are and where you’re from and or cooking or fishing,” Stepetin said.

“I want them to get interested enough to keep going because I think having more people interested in learning the language is really valuable. And over time they’ll continue to carry on the language.”

The course will be Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. For more information, visit the UAA website.

Previous articleYukon River chinook, chums, on track for dismal season
Next articleBronson issues directives on guns, COVID rules for city employees, finances