Rhythmic drumming pulsed through the Dena’ina Center as the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers took the stage.
Elders say those kinds of performances at the Elders and Youth Conference are a small step toward bringing back Native languages.
“A lot of the dances they do are stories of how we lived and how our ancestors lived,” explained Mary Schaeffer, an elder from Kotzebue.
Elder keynote speaker Gregory Fratis Sr., from Saint Paul, delivered his speech in English and Unangax. He stressed the importance of coming together to preserve the past.
“The language, we have to bring it out,” he paused and translated it into Unangax. “It shows us who we are.”
Each Native tongue was highlighted at speaking circle workshops.
Nae Brown and Kyle Worl led the Tlingit circle. Brown grew up in Anchorage but has roots in Bristol Bay and Yakutat. She began learning Tlingit six years ago when she attended college in Juneau.
“There are things you can express in Tlingit that you can’t really express in English and I think that’s the most beautiful part about it is Tlingit is so poetic,” Brown said.
She said what was surprising about the language was how much it enhanced her life.
“It really touched my heart. I think it’s important for them to learn it because it really will heal them as they’re growing up,” she said.
Some have said Alaska Native languages are dying off. Elders at the conference said the languages are simply asleep and the workshops are an important part of waking them up.
“Make sure the kids learn the language starting at home and then continuing on through school as they grow up so we can keep the culture alive, because that is the foundation of who they are,” Schaeffer said.
Becky Benedixen, from King Cove, said her best advice to youth is to fill their hearts with love and respect their heritage.
“Go to your traditions, learn what your ancestors did and follow that,” she said. “It will lead you to a true path.”
By speaking like their ancestors, youth today can ensure their languages will continue on for generations to come.