At the language house in Kodiak, new learners keep the Alutiiq language alive

two people washing dishes
Stevi Frets and Max Pyles joke as they do the dishes at the Sun’aq Tribe’s language house in Kodiak on Sept. 15, 2022. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Half of the first language speakers of Kodiak Alutiiq died between 2020 and 2022. But that’s not stopping new speakers from learning the language and passing along a distinct culture and worldview to the next generations.

At the Sun’aq Tribe’s language house, everything is a lesson—catching up on gossip, making a grocery list or washing the dishes.

No one lives here full-time, but the Sun’aq Tribe uses a federal grant to pay a group of language apprentices and mentors to master the language.

“To really get the language down, you gotta use it in practice,” said Dehrich Chya, a mentor at the language house. “The point of a language house is it’s a place where you can just get together and use the language in your day-to-day life.”

“Heritage languages are so important,” said mentor Stevi Frets. “And when you learn them, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m part of the crew saving it now.’ There’s no like, ‘Yeah, I learn a little Alutiiq on weekends, when I can.’ All of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, my language, I have to save it, I have to do everything I can’.”

Kodiak is home to a powerful movement to bring the Alutiiq language back into daily use. For about 100 years, American schools and governments suppressed the language and punished children for speaking it. Now the last Elders who speak it fluently are almost gone.

Frets says there are a few Elders in town she can speak with, and a lot of folks who have gone through some basic language classes at the University.

“But there’s not a lot of people you can like have a conversation with around. Like, I think they’re mostly in this room right now,” she said with a laugh.

In some ways, Frets says she feels like she missed out. The tribe estimates there are now only about 17 Elders who are fluent Alutiiq speakers left. They lost about that many during the pandemic. It’s a turning point.

But the language movement isn’t giving up, it’s moving forward.

Hailey Thompson administers the grant. She says part of the Sun’aq Tribe’s goal is to train fluent speakers who can in turn teach the language.

“We have a lot of motivation to learn Alutiiq. People want Alutiiq preschools, and Alutiiq language classes at the high school, and Alutiiq language class at the college,” she said. “But the problem is we don’t have the teachers to teach those classes and workshops.”

a woman at a desk
Hailey Thompson manages the S’unaq Tribe’s language grant. “It’s not a job you can just clock out of,” she said. “If we don’t build more Alutiiq fluent people… then there’s not going to be anyone for my kids to learn from. So that’s what probably keeps me going.” In Kodiak on Sept. 15, 2022. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

A solid foundation of language revitalization already exists in Kodiak. But Thompson says it’s different now—there were a lot more elders before.

“The next wave of what it looks like is building resources, archiving things that we know we’re going to need, spending the time that we know we can get with elders,” she said. “That’s what it looks like right now. Just cherishing all the things, that all the resources we can get… before we know that they’re gone.”

The stakes are high, but the rewards are immense. Frets and the others are building fluency to be able to teach the next generation of Alutiiq speakers.

At the Alutiingcut Childcare Center about a dozen preschoolers learn numbers in Alutiiq and Alutiiq versions of popular kids’ songs. There probably won’t be any birth speakers left by the time they’re older, but the language movement is working to ensure they’ll have teachers.

Alutiiq language courses are available at Kodiak’s high school, and a program exists at the Kodiak college. And the tribe hopes to put 18 people through its program at the Language House over the course of its 3-year grant.

Learners meet up with Elders at the museum once a week. Three of the Elders that used to be at those sessions died during the pandemic, but the museum records them so new learners and descendants of the speakers can hear their stories.

three people at a table
Dehrich Chya, the Alutiiq Museum’s Language and Living Culture director, sits with Elders at a weekly session in Kodiak on Sept. 16, 2022. (Photo by Valerie Kern/AKPM)

Florence Pestrikoff didn’t grow up speaking Alutiiq, even though most people in her village did. But for the last couple of decades she has been an active speaker and teacher — she learned in the first wave of language revitalization about 20 years ago.

“I love speaking my language,” she said. “In the past it was — people were ashamed of the language. It’s sad. Really sad.”

American missionaries and schools enforced strict English-only policies for years. Parents like hers encouraged English to protect their children. The result was a swift decline in speaker numbers.

Pestrikoff answers her cell phone in Alutiiq and says she speaks it with her husband. And that’s the vision of the language movement — to have the language be in use. At home, in the grocery store, on the street.

And to carry the values that are embedded in the words.

“We never say goodbye. There is no goodbye in Alutiiq,” Pestrikoff said. “You say ‘Tang’rciqamken. I will see you later.’ I like that.”

Just like the language in Kodiak schools and homes — quiet for a while, but coming back.

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