The smell of caribou maniaq roasted over the open fire, mixes with the sharp wood smoke. Annie Wilson, a short, commanding 70 year-old keeps up a steady stream of Yup’ik. With a chunk of raw caribou skewered onto a long stick, she narrates her actions in her first language. Her language apprentices echo the Yup’ik words and phrases, gleaning the meaning of new words by a mixture of explanation in Yup’ik and charades.
Wangkuta Qanriarait Nanvarparmiut Yugestun is the name of the program. It means, “We all speak Lake Iliamna Yup’ik.” And that’s exactly what everyone is doing as they gather around the campfire on the bright May afternoon on a hill across the Kvichak River from Igiugig.
After they speak exclusively in Yup’ik for 10 minutes, a timer goes off. AlexAnna Salmon, the village council president, is facilitating this session. She opens up the floor for questions in English.
“Is anyone confused about anything?” she asks.
“There’s quite a bit I didn’t get,” admits one of the apprentices.
Salmon is an apprentice herself, but she has studied the language both academically and informally with her family since she was a child. With Wilson’s help, she explains in English the words that they have been learning in this session.
Wilson was born and raised in Igiugig. She didn’t speak English until she went to school in Levelock at 10-years-old. Now she is teaching the younger generation because she says it is vital for the preservation of culture.
“Teaching Yup’ik makes you a stronger person from where you come from. Being a Yupik makes you a stronger person, and you pass on your knowledge to the next generation,” says Wilson.
In return for her efforts, this elder receives a stipend of a little over $800 a month. The six language learners are also compensated for the time they spend learning the language. They earn $15 per hour for participating in group activities like the session on maniaq and $25 per hour for one-on-one conversations with elders in their homes.
This is all done through a Language Preservation and Maintenance Grant from U.S. Administration for Native Americans. In July the village will complete the second year of the three-year grant that totals $850,000. With local entities, including the Igiugig Native Corporation, the village council and the school district matching 25 percent of the grant, the total funding for the project is substantial. According to those in the village, so are the returns.
“It feels like we’ve had that monumental shift, so now it’s just keeping momentum and working toward fluency,” says Salmon. She regularly sees students in the village greeting each other in Yup’ik. “That’s coming from them on their own. The mountain has been moved.”
Teaching children is another facet of the project. The language apprentices teach Yup’ik at the village school 30 minutes a day for four days a week during the school year. They are taking another step in the fall by opening Unglu, which means “nest.” It will be a Yup’ik immersion pre-kindergarten that runs three hours a day, five days a week.
Like Wilson, Salmon emphasizes that the revitalization program has deeper significance than the preservation of a way of speaking.
“It wasn’t our people that sat down and decided, ‘Oh, we should stop speaking this.’ It is not until you realize the effects of colonization that you realize, in order to counteract all this negative that we have, all these crime rates, dropout rates, suicides—that can all be addressed if we go back to who we are and be our true Yupik selves,” says Salmon. She sees a clear trajectory for reclaiming native culture. “You go to the language first. With that you’ll get your dance, you’ll get your worldview, you’ll find your values back.”
As the children in the village engage more with their native heritage through their native language, she sees a paradigm shift. A middle school student recently told her that she wants to study Yup’ik in college.
“It almost made me cry because you never used to hear kids say, ‘I’m going to college.’ And now they’re saying, ‘I’m going to college, and I’m going to keep studying this because it inspires me,’” says Salmon.
Going forward, the village has not decided if it will reapply for the grant. Salmon says that it has been a catalyst for revitalization, but they may be at a point where they can keep up the momentum without the time consuming administrative work that comes with grant funding.
Outside funding or no, it is clear when Salmon’s elementary-age daughter comes forward to pray for dinner in Yup’ik and the rest of the village joins in that Wangkuta Qanriarait Nanvarparmiut Yugestun is more than the title of the grant program. It is becoming a reality.