Gloria Wolfe was teaching a room of young people how to say “it’s good to see you” and “I eat” in Tlingit on Monday.
Then, a Tlingit elder unable to hear spoke up to encourage the audience to pay attention. The woman recounted her years in boarding school and how she nearly lost the language completely.
It took the mood in the room to a more serious tone.
It was one of many workshops throughout the first day of the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage. First Alaskans Institute sponsors the annual three-day conference to educate Alaska Natives about culture and traditional values.
Linda Schrack, was teaching some Xaad Kil, or Haida, in the session. She said the elder’s story was poignant. Schrack works with the Ketchikan Indian Community.
“It’s really important to preserve our languages and start using our languages again – it’s part of our identity,” Schrack said. “Our culture and our way of live is connected it’s all connected. And if we don’t keep our languages alive then some of our culture might be lost.”
Schrack was glad the woman spoke up. She says the interaction between the older generation of Alaska Natives with the younger crowd is crucial to passing along important knowledge.
Her grandparents grew up with Xaad Kil as a first language, but Schrack says her mother never learned it.
“The more language that I’m learning and teaching makes me kind of understand,” she said. “It’s helped me with my identity through my journey of learning.”
The conference includes additional language workshops. Yup’ik, Dena’ina, Gwich’in, Unangax and Sugpiaq languages will be taught Tuesday.
The Elders and Youth Conference is followed by the annual Alaska Federation of Natives gathering. Television coverage of both events is available all week on 360 North.