UAF hosts Alaska Native language conference to help preserve knowledge

Alaska Native languages are the focus of a four-day institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this week. The Alaska Native Language Revitalization Institute is hosted by the UAF College of Rural and Community Development. College director of Indigenous programs Sandra Kowalski says the conference reflects a new urgency to preserve Alaska’s diversity of Native languages.

“Recently, the Legislature passed a resolution declaring that our Alaska Native languages are in a state of emergency,” Kowalski said. “In addition to that, just in recent years, we’ve seen an increased interest by young people to become second language speakers.”

Kowalski emphasizes that loss of Native languages is not new.

“We’ve had elders passing away,” Kowalski explained. “Just the whole context of having a Western education system and a Western culture kind of incept in our world and our Alaska Native communities has made it challenging for Alaska Native languages to thrive and be maintained.”

Kowalski says the institute will focus on ten of Alaska’s twenty Native languages, including five from the interior region. She says participants will explore strategies for learning and teaching language from Alaska and outside experts.

“From Hawaii, where they’ve got strong revitalization efforts underway and from some experts with the Mohawk language,” Kowalski said. “They’ve been able to produce proficient second language Mohawk speakers.”

Alaska Native languages map

Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska map by Michael Krauss. (courtesy of the Alaska Native Language Center)

Kowalski notes that UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center has documented the state’s indigenous languages, a valuable baseline of information. Kowalski stresses that this week’s institute is also about empowering people.

“There’s this sense that we have to ask and be given permission to be who we are, and there’s a process we need to bring our communities through to take back our right to speak and promote and teach our own indigenous languages,” Kowalski said.

Kowalksi says the response to the Alaska Native Language Revitalization Institute has been strong and that registration if full. Over a hundred and fifty people signed up for the May 21 to 24 institute.

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