Only a generation ago, teachers tried to shame Alaska Native children into silence.
In this week’s Frontiers, Marie Rexford of Kaktovik recalls how teachers slapped her hand with a ruler for speaking in Inupiat.
David Katzeek, a Tlingit educator now living in Juneau, remembers how a teacher would force children to stretch out their arms and hold heavy rocks in each hand when they were caught speaking in their Native language.
Katzeek, now 72, was 8 years old at the time. He says he complied with the teacher’s directive, because he was taught by his elders to be respectful.
He coped by making a game out of holding the rocks and using his imagination to escape.
Thanks to those who endured the rocks and the rulers, Native languages are still here – and elders today are helping to mend the tattered tapestry of Alaska Native languages.
Today there are about twenty Native languages, but most have undergone serious erosion — some more than others.
Although the goal of most Alaska Native language programs is to create fluent speakers, it remains a struggle. As the older generation fades away, there are fewer left with a true command of the language, making it harder to find qualified teachers.
But there are success stories.
From elementary schools to the University of Alaska Southeast, Katzeek and other Tlingit elders have worked hard to revive their language and culture in Juneau. After decades of deterioration, Tlingit is poised to make a comeback.
In this week’s episode, we also hear from a Yup’ik language teacher.
Loddie “Ayaprun” Jones, originally from Scammon Bay, is our special guest.
Ayaprun, a longtime kindergarten teacher at the Yup’ik immersion school in Bethel, shares some of the program’s achievements.
Ayaprun says she was inspired to teach Yup’ik by her mother, Maryann Sundown – celebrated in Southwest Alaska as the “Dancing Diva,” renowned for her performances at dance festivals.
Ayaprun says that while her mother took great joy in dancing, she was troubled by the fact she could no longer communicate with her grandchildren, who only spoke English. She begged her to teach them Yup’ik.
Sundown died in October 2011 at the age of 93.