ANCHORAGE - Hundreds of Alaska Natives from all over the state are in Anchorage this week for the annual Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Conference.
At the Elders and Youth Conference at the Dena'ina Civic Convention Center, which precedes AFN, young people talked about cultural preservation.
Arnoldine Hill, 17, wrote a note on a torn piece of paper that expressed what she could not say at loud. “When an elder speaks to us in Yup'ik it would feel like they are nodding their head in shame because we don't understand. Well we have a reason - we were never taught."
“I love dancing,” said 15-year-old Catherine Uisoka.
Dancing is just one of many things she loves about her Yup’ik culture..
“I grew up with my grandparents Eskimo dancing, and my parents and my great grandparents,” said Uisoka, with a smile. “I watched all of them dance.”
But some things frustrate her, like not knowing how to communicate with her elders. And she's not alone. Hill agrees.
“Us teens and kids barely know how to speak our language,” said Hill. Arnoldine can say colors, shapes and hello and goodbye, but that is all. She said her small Yup’ik vocabulary is not because of a lack of interest, but because they're not being taught.
“I was told in our hometown, our great-grandparents told their kids to speak English instead of our own language so they could grow up and get jobs.”
But 68-year-old elder Elizabeth Sunnyboy had a different experience. According to Sunnyboy, she said her teachers would punish her for speaking in Yup'ik and forced her to learn English.
“So many times we didn't speak, we didn't talk, we didn't answer because we didn't know how to talk English,” Said Sunnyboy. For many of us, unfortunately, we were considered dumb or stupid.”
She said those memories affected her decisions as a parent.
“Unfortunately my reason for not speaking my Yup’ik language to my daughter was that I didn't want her to have to go through the same thing I went through -- to get punished for speaking the language, so I spoke mostly English to her.”
Her daughter is grown now, but Elizabeth said it's not too late. She's teaching her Yup’ik one word at a time.
Each word passed on to the next generation, she said, brings her one step closer to her own personal healing.
“For the young people, I just want to share: I love each and every one of you. I want you to learn your culture, your heritage, and your language because that's going to be your main support when you are a leader in the future.” (For Elizabeth Sunnyboy’s Yup’ik translation of that quote, click the video on the left.)