Indigenous languages will get the spotlight at Kenai schools’ film fest

Victoria Johnson teaches Lingit language classes to children at Sayeik Gastineau School in Juneau. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is holding an Indigenous language film festival for the first time. It’s part of a greater push to highlight Indigenous languages in the district.

The February festival will showcase short, locally made films that feature Alaska Native languages like Dena’ina. Those films will later be stored for future use by tribal organizations and schools.

“What better way to highlight Indigenous languages than to have people make films that could then be housed and possibly used in tribal or school district classrooms,” said Rachel Pioch, district coordinator for Title VI — the federal program that supports programming for Alaska Native and Native American students. “Especially knowing the history of how Indigenous languages have been viewed and silenced by school systems.”

Pioch said her department wanted to incorporate more language programs into the district to celebrate the United Nations’ Decade of Indigenous Languages, which began this year.

A handful of district schools already incorporate Indigenous language learning into their curricula, including schools in Port Graham, Nanwalek and Tyonek. Separately, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe is spearheading language revitalization efforts of its own, including public language workshops, an online Dena’ina audio dictionary and other programs from its new educational campus in Kenai.

Pioch wants more of that learning to be available at all Kenai Peninsula schools. She said since the pandemic, the Title VI department has taken a big step toward ramping up the district’s cultural programs, including food- and drum-making workshops at schools.

The film festival is another branch of that effort. Pioch said she worked with an advisory committee to make sure the project would be respectful and authentic.

Video submissions can range between one and five minutes. Just a portion of each film has to feature an Indigenous language.

“Even if it’s simple as an elder teaching a preschool class a couple of words — what a great video that would be,” Pioch said.

Pioch is already working with peninsula educators to encourage their students to submit videos. They’ll all show at a film festival in February and, after that, will be archived on the Title VI website.

Already, Pioch said the project has kind of exploded.

“It’s actually gone a little farther than I thought,” she said. “We do have a group in Anchorage who, even though it’s just supposed to be for the Kenai Peninsula, asked, ‘Can our kids please submit?’ And I said, ‘Sure, we’ll create a friends and family division.’”

Federal funding covers costs for Title VI students specifically, but Pioch said the district can supplement with additional funding to cover the costs of working with non-Native students.

“All of our students, regardless of ethnicity, will benefit from connecting to the land on which they live, as well as learning the history of the land and its people — and thereby the culture,” she said.

She hopes the project strikes a chord with families, too. Pioch has been moved by her own experience recording her mother, who’s Finnish.

“Getting her on video, telling how to make the traditional bread — that’s such a gift for my family,” she said. “This can also be a gift for the participant families.”

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