Revitalization of Alaska’s indigenous languages has largely been focused on two areas: getting Native languages into the mouths and minds of the young, and creating written documentation of ancient oral systems.
In the past few months, two book projects have combined those two areas into one innovative form: books for kids, published in Alaska Native languages. The books put the focus of revitalization efforts even more squarely on those best-postioned to sustain cultural traditions – the kids themselves.
The projects also point up the importance of Alaska’s writers and storytellers in helping keep indigenous languages alive.
In May, local author and UAS professor Ernestine Hayes and Hazy Island Books published “Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegí” (“The Story of the Town Bear and the Forest Bear”), believed to be the first original children’s book ever published in Tlingit.
Now, Anchorage-based author Deb Vanasse has released “Lucy’s Dance,” an original children’s story published in English and in Yup’ik (“Lugiim Yuraa”) through the University of Alaska Press. Like Hayes’ work, Vanasse’s book is believed to be the first of its kind.
The story of “Lucy’s Dance” presents the idea of dramatic cultural change through the personal perspective and family dynamics of a young girl, and conveys the hopeful idea that the work of only one individual in a community can make all the difference.
In the book, Lucy, a young Yup’ik girl, is eager to learn more about her community’s traditions, but her grandfather, the only source of this knowledge she has access to, is weary and reluctant to teach her. She convinces her mom to organize a dance, hoping to learn more about this important part of Yup’ik community life, but those who attend the dance have no memory of their traditions apart from giving gifts, and dance in their own ways. After Lucy gives her grandfather a special present – a dance stick adorned with meaningful personal items – he is finally inspired to share what he knows and begins to dance, with Lucy at his side.
Vanasse said her own experiences in Yup’ik villages and in witnessing major cultural shifts in those communities inspired her to write the story, and that it grew out of her love of and respect for this culture.
“It’s story that is close to my heart,” she said.
Vanasse took her first teaching job in Nunapitchuk in 1979, and also worked in Tuluksak and Akiachak before moving to Bethel in 1982. The lower Kuskokwim region was one of the last places to be visited by the missionaries and others, Vanasse said, so the evidence of culture clash was, at the time of her arrival, still strong.
“I met older Yup’ik people who could tell me when they met their first white person,” Vanasse said, a fact that she often has a hard time convincing people to believe.
The flip side of the recentness of this culture clash was that the missionaries’ attempts to suppress Yup’ik culture were still clearly in evidence.
“When I first went to the villages in 1979, there were definitely places where dancing was completely forbidden,” she said.
The language, however, was more difficult to suppress, and at that time was still strong. In Tuluksak, for example, Yup’ik was spoken as a matter of course by young and old alike.
“(The residents) spoke Yup’ik all the time unless they were talking to a teacher,” Vanasse said.
Almost 30 years later, she returned to the area after being invited to Stebbins to speak about her work as a writer. When she arrived, she was very surprised to hear so much English, her first indication that some of the traditions had eroded very quickly in the years she’d been away.
But the missionaries influence had also eroded, and as a result dancing was once again a vibrant part of the culture. Still, Vanasse worried about the future.
“They had already lost it once because the missionaries didn’t approve of dance and I got to thinking it could be lost again through lack of interest and it was heartbreaking to me.”
After spending time in the classrooms in Stebbins, she left with the beginnings of the book in her head.
“When I left the village, the theme was resonating in my mind – and of course my head was filled with the great kids I worked with.”
As she got closer to actually publishing the book, Vanasse was able to draw on her long-standing connections from her teaching days — both the translator, ,John Toopetlook, and the illustrator, Nancy Slagel, are her former students.
Vanasse also received guidance and support from others in the Yup’ik community, who contributed their expertise with a true generosity of spirit, she said.
Vanasse said she hopes the book will draw kids in and provide an engaging alternative to the pre-packaged, academic course materials often found in schools and libraries. A teacher’s guide is available for use in the classroom, and an audio element of the book is also in the works.
She also hopes the book’s reach will extend beyond Alaska to the Lower 48, where it could help satisfy widespread interest in what life is really like in Alaska, and perhaps dispel ideas based on images of “eskimos and igloos.”
Vanasse’s previous books include the children’s books “Under Alaska’s Midnight Sun,” “Alaska’s Animal Babies,” and “A Totem Tale,” as well as the novel “A Distant Enemy,” and several travel guides.
In 2010, she joined Andromeda Romano-Lax in establishing the 49 Writers blog, which has now grown to be a statewide writers resource offering courses, workshops, retreats and other support for Alaskan authors.
Vanasse said one of the main goals of the group is to provide opportunities for emerging writers around the state, particularly those outside urban areas who may not have strong networks in place to support their creative efforts. This role includes helping writers with the actual art and craft of writing, as well as helping them get a foot in the door in the publishing world.
One of the ideas 49 Writers is currently pursuing is an apprenticeship program that would connect emerging writers with those who are already established in the industry. Vanasse said she recently discussed this idea with Juneau screenwriter and playwright Dave Hunsaker, who led a roundtable discussion organized by 49 Writers last week in Anchorage.
She’s also been talking to Willie Hensley, author of “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow,” about ways to partner in cross-generational efforts to preserve traditions across the state.
This fall the group will host the state’s first ever Alaska Book Week, from Oct. 8 to 15, a statewide collaborative effort that includes readings and other events (see www.alaskabookweek.com).
Vanasse said she’s energized by all the possibilities but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the financial aspects of the work.
“We have good support and good structure, good vision, we know how to make stuff happen, but were right at that stage now where we need partners who come in beside us and help shoulder that financial piece.”
In the meantime, the group will continue its push to reach out to writers all over the state, a goal that may at times dovetail with efforts to revitalize indigenous languages.
“Our first challenge to is to reach emerging writers in rural areas in a meaningful way — a long-term meaningful way — and I think the language piece will flow from that.”
“I’m hopeful that there’ll be more books and even more hopeful that there will be Native people who write them.”
Vanasse said one of the only other Alaska Native language children’s books she knows of besides Hayes’ book is Debby Dahl Edwardson’s “Whale Snow,” published in 2005 in English and translated into Inupiaq (as “Uqsruagnaq”) by Jana Harcharek.
Amidst the often disheartening news about the decline of indigenous languages, there are some recent developments, including Vanasse and Hayes’ publications, that are more positive. For one, book projects are currently being pursued in other parts of the world. Earlier this month, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that The Northern Territory Library had launched a series of seven children’s books featuring indigenous stories in indigenous languages. (For more, see www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-08/saving-language/2787858).
Also last week, the Alaska Native Language Center released a new version of the Alaska Native Languages map, first produced in 1974. One of the positive points cited in an Anchorage Daily News article written by Mike Dunham on July 9 was that according to some scholars, Yup’ik stands the “best chance of surviving the 21st century.” Immersion programs and the Yup’ik degree program at UAF were singled out as strong contributors to the language revitalization efforts.
Back in Juneau, Sealaska Heritage Institute just released a set of fun alphabet flash cards, designed by Crystal Worl, and an online interactive tool designed to help kids learn the Tlingit alphabet (see story on page C1). LIke the books, the colorful cards appeal directly to kids.
The future remains uncertain for most of Alaska’s indigenous languages, but if Alaska’s storytellers and artists continue to join forces with linguists, professors and translators, it’s hard not to have hope for their continued vitality.
For more on the 49 Writers, visit 49writers.blogspot.com/
For more on Alaska Book Week, visit www.alaskabookweek.com/
For more on Lucy’s Dance, visit www.lucysdance.com/