Nine years ago, Ben Young dropped out of college – but he never stopped going to class.

With his grandfather, Claude Morison, Young immersed himself into daily lessons of Haida, an endangered indigenous language spoken in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.

For hours at a time, he worked with his 100-year-old elder to soak up as much of the language as he could before the elder died a year later.

Young, who since graduated from Butler University, has continued his pursuits to preserve a language he says has “maybe six to seven — tops” fluent speakers in Alaska and northern British Columbia.

For these efforts, the 34-year-old who teaches Haida immersion classes in Hydaburg, received the Culture Bearer award from the Alaska Federation of Natives.

“With a rich heritage that’s expressed in so many ways across the state – things that inspire me – I feel distinctly honored to be able to at my age, with what I feel like what little I’ve done,” Young said after receiving the award over the weekend. “I’ve only done what my grandfather had taught me when he was alive and it seemed like a simple gesture."

“Because so many people – school board leaders, school superintendents, community leaders across our region, parents’ inside their homes – they've all put value on our language. It’s only because of that I feel like that I would be able to be effective and I’ve been able to find my niche and to fill that such important void that as you know my grandfather brought me up to do."

Young has long-held roles in language revitalization as a mentor, teacher, researcher and curriculum developer, who first began teaching as a teenager during summer culture camps.

Young has said indigenous languages represent knowledge and wealth about cultural history.

In January 2008, one of those languages died. That language was Eyak and it was last spoken fluently by Marie Smith of Cordova.

She posthumously serves as a symbol for Alaska Natives, such as Young, for their efforts to keep other languages from dying.

“We still have to protect and utilize the speakers who we have,” Young said. “We also have to look forward and utilize what we can do today in order to make our language stronger than it was yesterday. We do have that urgency, but we can’t dwell on it. We have to do our best as we can today so we move that notch toward fluency a little bit more than yesterday.”

When he’s not teaching or writing curricula, Young had a small part in the movie Edge of the Knife, a film with a cast speaking entirely in Haida. Young also served as a language consultant.

“I thought that was such a crazy idea considering how many fluent speakers we had, the state of being the language was in,” he said. “I said that is such a crazy idea to have the audacity, to have the gall to create a full feature-length film, I got to get on board here."

“That big-picture thinking is what I was so happy to be a part of and seeing that start to finish, it gave me a new appreciation for movies. I hope that it can inspire others to do the same. Impossible is absolutely nothing, right?"

Young was among seven who received AFN President’s Awards.

Others were:

  • Parents of the Year: Ulric and Mary Ulroan
  • Della Keats Healing Hands: Dorcus Rock
  • Public Service: Gary Harrison, Chickaloon Native Village Traditional Council
  • Dr. Walter Soboleff “Warriors of Light:” Amber Webb
  • Lu Young Youth Leadership: Caitlynn Hanna
  • Elder of the Year: Nina Nasruq Harvey

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