KODIAK - The Alutiiq Museum is working to revive a critical piece of Alutiiq heritage by developing a dictionary and establishing a center for the disappearing language.
Today, the median age of Alutiiq speakers is 67. From a total population of 3,000 Alutiiq people, only about 400 still speak the language. In 1970, there were roughly 1,000 speakers.
The museum and Alutiiq community are working to reverse the downward trend.
Shauna Hegna, Alutiiq Language Coordinator at the museum, will spend the next year working closely with elders, tribal councils, the Kodiak Area Native Association, Native corporations and other organizations of the Kodiak archipelago to plan a comprehensive Alutiiq language program.
At the same time, April Laktonen Counceller, Alutiiq Language and Education Outreach Specialist at the museum, is working on a dictionary with the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks.
Hegna and Counceller are both Alutiiq, but neither was taught Alutiiq growing up. They, like many others today, grew up speaking English, and maybe a little Russian.
Russian Orthodox monks did the first work on Alutiiq language, although their progress continued only to about 1807 and almost none of their work survives. After that a few others worked on the language during the Russian period, but still very little progress was made.
The first modern linguistic work was done in the 1960s. In 1978, a grammar book and dictionary with 1,600 word entries was produced. The dictionary being compiled now will have more than 6,000 entries.
The words were collected more than 15 years ago by the original lexicographer, Jeff Leer, but have been on little pieces of paper in boxes at the language center in Fairbanks, said Counceller.
The loss of language began in the 19th century. Later, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs schooled Native children, the educational objective was assimilation with American culture and language. Students throughout Alaska were punished for speaking their Native languages.
The museum encourages elders who are interested in teaching Alutiiq to adults, and adults interested in learning Alutiiq, to contact them.
"We are at a really critical point right now," said Counceller. "If we don't promote and preserve it in the next generation or two, it will be a dead language, lost forever."