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They're speaking Alutiiq in Anchorage

Posted: February 24, 2014 - 12:02am

KODIAK — Anchorage has been described as Alaska’s largest village, so it makes sense that it’s become a second home for the native language of the Kodiak archipelago.

Beginning in September, a group of Alutiiq language learners began meeting at Alaska Pacific University. Their two-hour Saturday afternoons have attracted as many as 20 Alutiiq speakers and learners, although usually it’s usually about half that size, said John Yakanak, a 44-year-old Alutiiq-language learner from Kodiak who organized the group. About five Alutiiq-speaking elders in Anchorage now attend the group.

The Anchorage group represents a significant portion of the world’s Alutiiq-speaking population, according to the Alutiiq Museum, which is 55 native elder speakers and about a dozen intermediate to advanced speakers.

Yakanak took Alutiiq 101 and 102 at Kodiak College by video-conference from Anchorage. He started the Anchorage group because he wanted to continue practicing the language while he was at Alaska Pacific University pursing a psychology degree.

Elders Fred and Irene Coyle, who live in Anchorage, are regulars at the group and helped make it possible, there are actually more Alutiiq-speakers than he realized in Anchorage, Yakanak said. Others elders stop by the language group when they have business in Alaska’s largest city.

“It started with two elders that wanted to come every week and then they’d say ‘oh this person is in town, this person is in town.’ Our elder group got bigger and bigger,” Yakanak said. “I’m thankful for the amount of elders and how willing they are to help us out. Without them could only learn so much.”

According to Alutiiq Museum director Alisha Drabek, the current group isn’t the first Alutiiq conversational group in Anchorage. A few predecessors include the Anchorage-based Alutiiq dance group Imamsuat, whose founder studied Alutiiq.

“It’s nice to see it growing,” Drabek said.

The Alaska Pacific University group is called “Kicagwigmi Sugpiaq-Alutiiq Yugneret” or “Sugpiaq-Alutiiq Words In Anchorage.” The proper noun for the city of Anchorage, Kicarwik, is a translation of the name’s English etymology, a place where one anchors a boat. Kicar is the verb “to anchor” and wik is a word meaning place.

Attendees at the weekly practice sessions use a game-based method known as “where are your keys,” to increase their fluency, Yakanak said. They also listen to the elders tell stories.

“We really enjoy listening to the elders tell their stories about when they were younger and growing up. A lot of us weren’t exposed to that (growing up),” he said.

“When they talk fluently in the language it has a real beautiful flow to it.”

The Anchorage Alutiiq language speakers and learners meet every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. on the Alaska Pacific University campus. They plan to hold a potluck on March 8 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage

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