The theme of this year's First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Fairbanks is "Language is our superpower,"  and elder keynote speaker Sally Tugidam Ayagaa Swetzof started her presentation in the Aleut language, Unangam Tunuu.

Swetzof was born and raised on Atka, an island east of Adak, on the Aleutian chain. She says she worked for 28 years for the Atka Netsvetov School starting as a school office aid and working her way up to be the Unangam Tunuu language head teacher. She is also a cultural consultant for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association Wellness Program.

Unangam Tunuu was Swetzof's first language. She says she didn't speak any English until just before she started school, when her older sister Dolly taught her how to say "hi" and "thank you."

Swetzof says she was born before statehood, but the state's name was born from the Aleutian island language, meaning "mainland."

"The state was born in our lands," Swetzof said. "So anytime you hear or say Alaska remember where it comes from and you will know that this is how our language is our superpower."

Swetzof calls indigenous languages a connection among ancestors, the current generation and future generations.

"I want each and every one of our youth and elders to remember who we are and where we come from. This is our homeland," she said. "We have been here for the past 10,000 years and as the First Alaskans Institute reminds us, we need to be thinking and planning for the next 10,000 years."

For indigenous languages to be around for future generations, Swetzof says people need to work together to keep languages alive. She says people need to learn and speak their native languages.

Swetzof says these languages were threatened when outsiders came to Alaska and punished people for speaking their native languages. She said they were told it would be better for the children if they only spoke English.

"What they told us back then was completely untrue," Swetzof said. "Speaking only English will not make life better for our kids. Speaking our own languages gives us a special power that English never can and our people will be much happier and healthier."

To help people learn Unangam Tunuu, Swetzof is involved in a summer intensive — a kind of immersion program where no English is spoken. She says even students who begin the summer not knowing any Unangam Tunuu can speak in full sentences by the end of the program.

Swetzof encourages anyone interested in hearing and learning Unangam Tunuu to download the APIA Unangam Tunuu app.

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