The 30th annual Elders and Youth conference began Monday in Anchorage. The conference is held each year at the beginning of the same week as the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. The gathering is an opportunity for youth to discuss an array of issues relevant to Alaska Natives with support from their elders.
The conference got off to another impressive start this year. 17-year-old Devlin Anderstrom was chosen to give the youth keynote address. Not only did he introduce himself in his Tlingit language, he gave his entire speech in it. For nine minutes Anderstrom spoke Tlingit to the audience, never once slipping into English until he gave the speech a second time.
After the first few minutes, people in the audience turned to each other with wowed faces, they nodded and smiled. Anderstrom’s keynote speech was no small feat.
There are only a few hundred Tlingit speakers left and most of them are over the age of 60. Anderstrom, who is a senior at Yakutat High School, learned some of the language when he was young. He moved out of Alaska as a young boy and returned when he was 12.
“I’ve lived in downtown Denver, the suburbs in northern California, even a small rural community in Nebraska,” Anderstrom said. “When I left home I knew the entire time that home was where I belonged and it was my place to be.”
Growing up, Anderstrom says he spent a lot of time around elders who spoke the language fluently. He began his study of Tlingit in earnest after he moved back home to Yakutat. Just this year – he started taking Lance Twitchell’s Tlingit language class through the University of Alaska Southeast.
Anderstrom says one of the reasons he has been so dedicated to learning Tlingit is because some cultural values and ideas can only be truly expressed in their original language.
“One of them would be haashagoon,” Anderstrom said. “So, haashagoon, it’s our ancestors and at the same time it’s the future generations, like, everything that we were and everything that we will be. It’s just kind of a hard concept to explain.”
And it’s not just the Tlingit language that Anderstrom feels compelled to learn. He’s also Iñupiaq, Ahtna and Tanacross Athabaskan. He’s trying to learn all of those languages.
“Right now Tlingit is the language I know best,” Anderstrom said. “It’s the only language I could have made a speech like that in. But I’ve also started to learn other languages as well, Eyak, Ahtna and Inupiaq. My goal is to learn as much as I can. I want to try to help preserve everybody’s language because I think everybody in the state deserves that, everybody that’s Alaska Native.”
True to the spirit of his role as a youth at the conference, 17-year-old Anderstrom brings optimism to the conversation. He’s doesn’t think that Alaska Native languages can ever be truly lost.
“I think language is a big part of culture, for me, and it’s really a hard hit for any culture to take to lose their language,” Anderstrom said. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily the necessarily the end game, I don’t think it’s game over when a language is lost because like Eyak, a lot of language can be brought back at least partially through all the documented resources that we have. We just have to pull together and I think we can avoid language death all together.”
Anderstrom gave the youth keynote address after elder Fred John Jr. this (Monday) morning. The conference room at the Dena’ina center had 1,300 chairs set up and nearly all of them were full within a hour of starting the conference.