Alaska presumably changed forever on Jan 21 with the extinction of the Eyak language.
The death of Marie Smith Jones, the last traditional speaker of the Southcentral Alaska language, highlights the juxtaposition between Alaska Natives' cultural roots and their identity in the ever-changing contemporary world.
"Eyak is the first historically known Alaskan language to become extinct," said linguist Michael Krauss, adding that it could just be the tip of the iceberg. "Eyak is merely the first in what could be a parade of Alaska languages going off into extinction, if not oblivion."
Perseverance Theatre is hosting the eighth annual Beyond Heritage festival from June 2 through 8. The festival will celebrate Alaska Native storytelling, its historical significance and its role in contemporary Alaska. Beyond Heritage founder Ishmael Hope said the festival began as a way of highlighting the differences between heritage and culture.
"Post contact, there's been sort of a rift and a split between heritage and culture," he said. "For me, how rituals die, how heritage really goes away, is when it becomes split from your everyday way of thinking and feeling, and that's what I wanted to bring out."
Hope said this year's festival is bringing in some of the premier Native storytellers to honor the tradition and articulate the value of storytellers in today's society.
"We need to make it clear - really, really clear - to people just how rich and how important and how much they contribute to world culture and art," he said.
The festival will include storytelling by Koyukon Athabascan elder Catherine Attla, Yukon storyteller Sharon Shorty and veteran Tlingit storyteller Bob Sam, among others.
"Native storytelling - the artistic merits have been extremely undervalued, relegated to children's literature or some sort of other condescending interpretation," Hope said. "When you actually let it stand on its own, and you take the time to try and understand the context and really absorb the story, you learn to value it in a way that you value any of the other best literature you can find."
Shorty, 42, said the oral heritage is vital for contemporary Native culture.
"I feel it's important to share our history and to share culture through stories and to become disciplined by listening to stories," she said.
Storytelling has changed significantly from the days her grandmother learned the stories that Shorty now tells, she said. The stories were frequently relayed around campfires or while picking berries, and now Shorty finds herself telling stories in front of much larger audiences.
Shorty said the number of young Native storytellers is limited. She hopes her presentations can help inspire younger generations to embrace the tradition.
"I feel it's important," she said. "How many thousands of years have we remembered these things? And to not remember them or honor them would be a really sad thing."
Beyond Heritage also will highlight some of the contemporary avenues the younger generation is using to tell stories, including a performance by the Tlingit rap group Northkut Wolf Pack. The Juneau-Douglas High School Early Scholars program also will perform an original play written by 17-year-old DeAndre Howard-King, called "Homebound," on Monday, June 2.
The Early Scholars wanted a play involving contemporary social topics that Native students deal with, such as alcoholism and domestic violence, and present it to the community, Howard-King said.
"Everybody in my culture has to go through this balancing act - this struggle to overcome to be cultural and also gain success in life," he said.
The play revolves around a young man who has come back from college to his village after hearing the uncle who raised him had passed away. Being neglected by his parents, the protagonist struggles to find his identity in the modern world as well as his obligations to his community and culture.
Growing up as a Native can be pretty tough because of the difficulties balancing the traditional roles of the culture and embracing the realities of a global village, Howard-King said. Embracing Tlingit culture as a child was difficult because not all of his peers did the same, he said.
"I realized getting involved also meant getting ridiculed," Howard-King said. "Growing up in elementary school, I was the one they always saw dancing, and I guess people weren't used to it. And I got treated funny for it."
He found further cultural struggles because his father is black, and he said his cousins would ridicule him while spending summers in Angoon.
"I guess it's pretty tough to balance because they aren't used to having dark people around," he said. "I'm pretty light skinned for my family, so it was pretty tough for me to balance two acts because I guess I see racism from both sides. I think now that I'm in high school, and I have an understanding about what's going on around me, like I'm culturally aware."
Beyond Heritage also is collaborating this year with the Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature Awards, or HAIL Awards, on Tuesday, June 3. Awards this year will be given to Clarissa Hudson (Tlingit), Annie Blue (Yup'ik) and Walter Johnson (Dena'ina).
The work of Krauss and late-Eyak-elder Anna Nelson Harry also will be honored for work compiled for the 1982 book, "In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry."
Krauss said Harry's work saved for posterity is "world class literature in a very tragic sense."
The final day of the festival will include a telling of Harry's "Giant Rat" story by Austin Tagaban and Bob Sam on Saturday, June 7.
While these Alaska Native storytellers may have found critical acclaim, Hope said many of them have difficulty finding commercial success in contemporary society.
"To me, it's just really interesting that some of these elders that we are bringing here are struggling to make a living," he said. "They are combining their subsistence lifestyle and their values and trying to pay their heating bills.
"For me, it's a very strange and odd thing to see these masters, who I believe are some of the best American poets living today, on that level," he added.
Krauss said we are at a critical point to ensure the survival of living Alaska Native languages, but he said there is hope.
"You can use the word hope. Of course there's hope, but 'possibility' is a better word," he said. "A language, unlike a dinosaur, can be revived from an adequate record if the people are devoted enough to it."
Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or email@example.com.
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