Nanwalek works to save dying Native language

  • Bilingual Sugt’estun teacher Sally Ash leads students at Nanwalek School in reciting the calendar months during Sugt’estun class on Dec. 15.-Photo by Annie Rosenthal

NANWALEK — “Do you know what your name means?”

Sally Ash asks each student in the classroom, one at a time. Some nod, others shake their heads. She’s not asking about their English names. The elementary and middle school students in Ash’s class at Nanwalek School are Sugpiaq, Alaska Natives of the Chugach region, and each has received a name from his or her grandparent in their traditional language: Sugt’estun.

There’s Pitugaq, whose name means Rooster. Others are the words for Flower, Little Fish, Grandfather. Several are variations on “Kuku,” meaning baby. Many of the students were named for elders who died around the same time they were born — “like they traded spots,” Ash says. She has an anecdote about each child’s naming. In a town of about 200, most of the children are her grandkids or great-nieces and -nephews.

After introducing themselves in English, the students recite the calendar months in Sugt’estun. This is an immersion class, and the name discussion had been a special exception to the rule of “Sugt’estun only.” The kids were introducing themselves to me. I had come to Nanwalek two days before to learn about the village’s efforts to save its dying language.

Only about 10 people in Nanwalek speak Sugt’estun fluently, Ash says. At 57, she’s one of the youngest. 

Those dwindling numbers have lent a new urgency to the community’s efforts to pass the language on to the next generation. The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded $7 million to Chugachmiut, the regional corporation’s nonprofit, “to improve student academic achievement through parent and local participation,” according to nonprofit’s website. 

Some of that money is going toward designing a new Sugt’estun curriculum. And in the neighboring village of Port Graham, where Sugt’estun is also the traditional language, community members are hosting immersion camps and working on a language-learning app.

But the project is about more than vocabulary words. In working to keep Sugt’estun alive, community members are attempting to hold onto the culture their ancestors cultivated for hundreds of years. They’re trying to define what it means to be Native in 2016.

“When the kids don’t know who they are, they end up being so lost. And they’re lost both in the non-Sugpiaq world and the Sugpiaq world,” Ash says.

Members of Ash’s generation grew up speaking

their native language, only to be punished for it and forced to learn English at the local Bureau of Indian Affairs elementary and middle school. 

“They beat it out of us. Physically,” Ash’s older brother, Wally Kvasnikoff, says at a dinner for the village elders at the Nanwalek community center. He’s on the board of the local corporation and maintains the roads and airstrip in the snow.

Without a high school at home, Nanwalek teenagers of Ash’s generation traveled to Seldovia and towns on the lower Kenai Peninsula to get an education. Many were bullied into believing that their culture was something to be ashamed of.

Since the 1975 landmark “Molly Hootch” court case that required the state government to build high schools in rural villages, teens from Nanwalek no longer have to leave home. But in an effort to spare their children the pain and shame they suffered, most of the generation that now comprises the village’s elders did not teach their children Sugt’estun. Now that the community is slowly recovering pride in its traditions, residents are facing the harsh reality that their language — and the culture it represents — are on the verge of extinction.

Along the Alaska Peninsula, on Kodiak Island, and around Prince William Sound, other Sugpiaq communities are coming to the same conclusion. All in all, fewer than 100 people statewide speak Sugt’estun fluently. Ash estimates that less than 50 speak Nanwalek’s Chugach dialect.

It’s the same crisis that faces Native communities around the world. A 2015 New Yorker article reported that of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, as many as 50 percent may exist only in archives by the end of the century. 

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Homer to Nanwalek is a 25-mile flight across Kachemak Bay. The descent onto the curving airstrip comes at a dangerous and sometimes deadly angle. At the bus-stop sized airport, villagers unload fresh groceries and cargo unavailable at the two small stores in town. It’s early winter, and smoke curls from the chimneys of one-story houses perched between the bay and a frozen lagoon. Beyond the town, spruce trees and snow blanket the mountains.

Though its geographic isolation has provided the village some protection from total immersion into Western culture, Nanwalek is fully ensconced in the 21st century. Villagers aren’t dressed in the seal-skin beaded parkas of their ancestors — they wear Carhartt. Six of the nine middle school students at the Nanwalek school on this December day have dyed their hair a rainbow of colors. People zoom around the town’s bumpy roads on Honda ATVs, update their Facebook statuses and watch Cupcake Wars on the Food Network after dinner. 

Ash’s sister, Kathy Brewster, lives across the street from Nanwalek’s church. She has a soft voice and a quick wit and, sitting at her dining room table in a “Got Halibut?” T-shirt, tells a Sugpiaq legend she learned from her parents, about a clever hunter who defeats a man-eating whale. She speaks in Sugt’estun, one sentence at a time, demonstrating the clucking tones.

Across the table, Ash’s son, Sperry, translates. He and Ash’s younger sister, Rhoda Moonin, are Nanwalek’s language coordinators, employed by Chugachmiut. Sperry has a master’s degree in education with a Native language specialty from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. At 39, he is the rare member of his generation who learned Sugt’estun at school and from his family.

In the living room, Sperry’s 9-year-old daughter, Mary, is watching the Disney Channel. The juxtaposition of the quiet voices sharing an ancient story and the abrupt sound of the laugh track on the sitcom is jarring.

Sugt’estun is the key to the entire Sugpiaq culture, Brewster says. Even beyond providing a source of identity in a rapidly changing world, it’s a lens through which people interpret the world. The words of the language provide detailed information about an entire way of life — centuries of wisdom about rural Alaska. 

Today, Brewster thinks villagers are losing touch with the physical world around them. When she was a child and the village lost power during storms, everyone knew how to make do. Now, the lights go out and chaos breaks out, she says. Without the survival skills that her ancestors communicated in Sugt’estun, people are helpless.

That’s because the language also provides ecological information that doesn’t exist in English, information that’s directly applicable to life in Nanwalek, where subsistence is still a lifestyle and a source of livelihood. 

Brewster points to the dried salmon strips on the table. She tries not to go to the town’s store for food, she says. Local wildlife caught and collected from the lagoon, lakes and surrounding forests in the summer formed the ingredients for traditional dishes that Brewster and other community members compiled in a cookbook a few years back: seal oil, bear roast, boiled humpy, bidarki gravy, cranberry jam. She’s also used the knowledge passed down to her by older family members to make a guide to medicinal plants, she says, offering a mug of homegrown yarrow tea.

In the kitchen, Brewster’s son DJ is making chili for dinner. He says he wishes he could have learned Sugt’estun at school when he was a kid. He’d like to be able to speak it now, but thinks it may be too late to learn.

••••••••••

Established by Russians as a fur trading post in 1786, Nanwalek is the oldest settlement on mainland Alaska. The Russians occupied the area for more than 80 years, and though the town no longer bears the name they gave it — Alexandrovsk — they left an imprint, both genetic and cultural, on their Native neighbors. 

Most of Nanwalek’s population is of mixed Russian and Sugpiaq heritage. Nearly everyone belongs to the Russian Orthodox church and the school follows the Orthodox calendar, with Christmas on Jan. 7 and New Year’s the following week. The glass cases in a small museum in the back of the post office display silver crosses brought from Russia, alongside dolls dressed in traditional Sugpiaq attire.

When Russia sold the area to the United States in 1867, the town was rechristened English Bay. In 1992, the local people renamed it Nanwalek, the Sugt’estun word for “by the lagoon.”  

Local culture is now a blend of traditions: On the wall of Ash’s dining room is a handwritten copy of the Lord’s Prayer in Russian script. When read aloud, the words are in Sugt’estun.

Community members have been taking turns teaching Sugt’estun informally at the school since the 1970s, Ash explains. But only 10 years ago, when Ash and other community members lobbied to make Sugt’estun part of the school’s core curriculum, the school district argued that it was more important to improve teaching in basic subjects like reading and math. They suggested that students interested in learning a second language take an online Spanish course.

Since then, statewide attitudes about cultural preservation and education have begun to shift. The Alaska Association of School Boards last summer announced that its number one goal for the current school year is to “empower our boards to increase the academic success of Alaska Native students and increase graduation rates of Alaska Native students who are grounded in their cultural identity with the ability to successfully pursue their goals.”

Ash took over as the school’s sole certified Sugt’estun teacher in 1989, right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In her daily, 45-minute classes, she uses a strategy called “total physical response” or TPR, which incorporates sign language and was introduced to Nanwalek by the linguists who have visited the village over the years.

Doing well in the class is not a requirement for graduation. But the school secretary uses Sugt’estun words in her morning announcements.

“For kids to be able to be immersed in not only the language but the culture and with their own people as teachers is a treasure. And it’s a treasure that we’ll work to protect,” says Nancy Kleine, who is in her fourth year as principal of the Nanwalek and Port Graham schools.

Kleine, who is from Homer, says she makes an effort to hire teachers who are interested in and respectful of the village’s culture. But as is the case all over rural Alaska, teacher turnover makes it hard to provide steady instruction and continuity.

There are other challenges.

Ash learned at a linguistic conference in Albuquerque, N.M., last fall that successful language learning requires strong support both in the classroom and at home. She’s concerned that that’s not something she can provide alone. Eager students who learn Sugt’estun at school are unable to practice with their non-speaking parents at home.

And the lingering trauma that many elder community members still associate with the language is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

“I think the parents my age and up are a little afraid of passing the language on. They don’t want to encourage the kids too much,” Ash says. “There’s still a fear that if they don’t learn English first, they’ll never get anywhere.”

Ash hopes the $7 million Chugachmiut grant will pay for a second Sugt’estun teacher to help her in class. And she’s optimistic about the new, more formal curriculum that Sperry Ash and Rhoda Moonin are working to develop. The app being developed in Port Graham and a new set of iPads at Nanwalek School, also the product of a grant, provide new technological possibilities for Sugt’estun education.

But progress is slow. Teaching and learning a language requires tremendous work. To truly revive Sugt’estun, multiple constituencies need to make it a priority, and making the leap between good intentions and tangible results is difficult. Sometimes, after a long day of teaching distracted high school students, Ash worries that they’re running out of time.

“I just feel like I’m not enough,” she says.

But when she visits her grandchildren, Ash finds hope. In their home, Sperry Ash and his wife, Michele, who is from a Yupik community near Bethel, speak a combination of Yupik and Sugt’estun. They figure their kids learn English everywhere else. 

Mary, the eldest child, speaks rapid-fire in the language of her people. Sometimes she even corrects her dad. Neither of her younger siblings speaks any discernible language yet. Lubova, 6, has Down Syndrome, and Spiridon is only 2. But both seem to understand their parents — following directions, laughing at jokes. 

Sperry hopes their first words will be in Sugt’estun.

Annie Rosenthal was an intern for the Homer News from September through December.

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