Young Alaska Natives Learn Traditional Ways at Elders and Youth Conference
Language and culture emphasized
ANCHORAGE - Cassandra Kernak is a modern 13-year-old. She's wearing skinny jeans and a bright top and chatting with her friends from Begich Middle School.
Today they're attending the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage. Kernak is plugged into the 21st century, but she says she's inspired by what she's learned from an older generation at the conference this week. She heard from Native Elders who lived very traditional lifestyles as young people.
"They were really traditional, like fishing and kayaking," she said.
Those are two activities she says she would like to take up. "It was pretty cool."
Amber Randazzo giggled at a story she'd heard from the elders. They used cans as ice skates. The 11-year-old lives in Anchorage, away from parts of the state where the lifestyle involves hunting and fishing as a means to survive.
At this convention elders and youth alike emphasize the importance of preserving the culture. Artist Phillip John Charette was leading a community art project. The installation is five portraits of Alaska Natives representing the major linguistic groups in the state. He said forming a sense of cultural identity can help the youth throughout their life. He cited a study from the U.S. Department of Education that addresses the issue.
"Students who are engaged with the culture and connect to their culture through art though dance, through Native games, and have a sense of pride, do much better in school and have a greater chance of success not only in school, but in life."
Some ways of engaging the culture take a lot more work and concentration. Shirley Kendall teaches Tlingit, a language native to the Southeastern part of the state. Her parents taught her at a time missionaries and the English language was becoming a greater influence. She lives in Anchorage now, but she's still a strong proponent of speaking Tlingit. She's a teacher and has seen a great interest in this knowledge bestowed on her as a child. "We've had a lot of fear about the languages disappearing, but we've had a lot of young people interested in learning."
She's been impressed about the interest of non-Natives who want to know more about the language. She says learning from a native speaker is crucial. "Tlingit has eight X's, and none of them sound like the English X." New speakers can't learn the language from a book.
There are twenty Native languages in the state. The Alaska Native Language Center reports that just two of those, Siberian Yup'ik and Central Yup'ik are taught to children as a first language.