Alaska teen sees music as means of preserving Native languages

Alyson McCarty, right, and her mom Minnie McCarty are photographed Friday in Anchorage. Alyson McCarty recently recorded her seventh CD of Yup’ik and English hymns. Of the 14 tracks, she recorded four in Yup’ik.

ANCHORAGE — Alyson McCarty speaks Latin. She knows a little Greek and few words of Spanish. But when the 14-year-old sings, she sings in her mother’s language of Yup’ik.

McCarty recently recorded her seventh CD of Yup’ik and English hymns. Of the 14 tracks, McCarty recorded four in Yup’ik. There’s a rendition of “Amazing Grace” called “Naklekuti Nitnirqekria” and a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Even the thank-yous, “Quyana,” are in the Western Alaska language.

McCarty’s CDs have been heard on radio stations in Bethel, Nome and Fairbanks. She sang “God Be With You” in Yup’ik at a memorial for Lu Young, Don Young’s late Gwich’in Athabascan wife, at the 2009 Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

That year she recorded a CD of hymns entirely in Yup’ik.

McCarty counts her growing discology as one more step — along with efforts to create Inupiaq language educational software or revive the dead Eyak tongue — in the effort to preserve fading Alaska Native languages.

McCarty said she doesn’t hear teens her age speaking the words her mother, Minnie McCarty, grew up with in Napakiak.

“Maybe if I sing it, they’ll want to learn their language,” she said.

Napakiak is 15 miles southwest of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River, where Minnie said teachers forced her to speak English in school.

“Otherwise we get whipped with a ruler or put in a closet,” she said.

Minnie began teaching her daughter the chorus of hymns in Yup’ik when the girl was 6 or 7 years old. Now Alyson is teaching herself to read the language too, sounding out the words that she’s been singing.

When people send text messages to Minnie in Yup’ik, she sometimes asks Alyson to translate, the mother said. “It’s on Facebook that people start talking to me in Yup’ik or my brother would text me. ... And I couldn’t read nothing,” she said. “And then Alyson would sound it out for me and I understand what he’s saying.”

One of the frequent messages from home: “When are you coming?”

Alyson also is thinking of creating English versions of Yup’ik songs, such as a tune on the new CD called “When I was Lonely,” which she says was written by a man from the Kongiganak after his wife left him.

The latest disc is called “For Those Tears I Died.” The title song is dedicated to people who have contemplated suicide in rural Alaska, where suicide rates are many times the national average, Alyson told Bethel radio station KYUK in June.

McCarty’s music can be found online at www.alysongrace.com.

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