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Younger generations push to preserve a disappearing Indigenous language in rural Alaska


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Half of the people whose first language is Kodiak Alutiiq have died over the last few years.

The Alaska Native Sun'aq Tribe estimates fewer than 20 members remain. But that is not stopping new speakers from learning the endangered language and passing along a distinct culture and world view to the next generations.

KTOO Public Media's Claire Stremple reports from Kodiak, Alaska, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Claire Stremple: If you don't speak Alutiiq, you won't get the jokes that the language house. It's a place where everything is a lesson, catching up on gossip, washing the dishes or making a grocery list.

Kodiak is known for bears and fish. But it's also the home of a powerful movement to bring the Alutiiq language back into daily use. For about 100 years, American schools taught English only and punished children for speaking Alutiiq.

Now the last people who remember it as the language of use are almost gone. Stevi Frets works for the tribe and as a language mentor at the house.

Stevi Ani Frets, Alutiiq Language Mentor: Heritage languages are so important. And you're like, oh, my gosh, my language, I have to save it. I have to do everything I can.

Claire Stremple: The tribe has estimates there are now only about 17 elders who are fluent Alutiiq speakers left.

It's a turning point. The stakes are high, but the rewards are immense. Frets and the others are building fluency to be able to teach the next generation of Alutiiq speakers.

Speaker: I would like you to pull one of your Alutiiq (INAUDIBLE). Turn your little Alutiiq ears up. Turn your Alutiiq voices up.

Claire Stremple: About a dozen preschoolers are enrolled in the Alutiingcut Child Care Center. They learn numbers in Alutiiq and Alutiiq versions of popular kids songs.

There probably won't be any people who spoke the language from birth left by the time these kids are older. But the language movement is working to ensure they will have teachers. The tribe hopes to put 18 people through the intensive program over the course of its three-year grant.

Dehrich Chya is the Alutiiq language and living culture director at the Alutiiq Museum, as well as a mentor at the language house.

Dehrich Isuwiq Chya, Language and Living Culture director, Alutiiq Museum: And then can you say (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

Claire Stremple: He leads a session with apprentice speakers and elders.

Dehrich Isuwiq Chya: The most rewarding moments for me are when I can have conversations with elders and first language speakers.

Claire Stremple: And he's been recording, so new learners and descendants can hear their stories.

Florence Pestrikoff didn't grow up speaking Alutiiq, even though most people in her village did. Her parents encouraged her to speak English instead.

Florence Pestrikoff, Elder and Alutiiq Language Mentor: In the past, it was, people were ashamed of the language.

Claire Stremple: She understood the language and began to speak in the first wave of language revitalization. In the last couple of decades, she has been an active speaker and teacher.

Florence Pestrikoff: Oh, I love speaking my language. I really do. I feel complete.

Claire Stremple: She answers her cell phone in Alutiiq and speaks it with their husband.

And that's the vision of the language movement, to have the language be in use, at home, in the grocery store, on the street, and to carry the values that are embedded in the words.

Florence Pestrikoff: We never say goodbye. There is no goodbye in Alutiiq.

You say thanks (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE). I will see you (SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE) later. I like that.

Claire Stremple: For "PBS NewsHour," I'm Claire Stremple in Kodiak.

Judy Woodruff: I'm so glad we can do this kind of reporting.

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