An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 3, 2003 - Issue 86
by JOEL GAY - Anchorage Daily News
credits: all photos by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
NAPASKIAK -- The first-grade classroom at Z. John Williams School could be anywhere in America. Pint-size wooden chairs and knee-high tables, plastic bins of crayons, walls plastered with colorful posters and strings of alphabet letters.
But in Christine Samuelson's room, the alphabet is only 18 letters long and A doesn't stand for apple. A is for angqaq, C means cauyaq and E is for ena.
Samuelson teaches in Yup'ik, the mother tongue of the Eskimos who have inhabited the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for thousands of years.
While indigenous languages everywhere edge toward extinction, the Y-K Delta remains a stronghold of Native language, and culture and schools like Z. John Williams are one reason why. Parents who raise their children speaking Yup'ik have demanded Yup'ik instruction in their schools. The local district has provided it.
But that support may be faltering. Standardized state and federal student achievement tests have raised the stakes for students to master English ever earlier. Some residents argue that Yup'ik instruction belongs in the home, leaving schools to prepare students for jobs in an English-based economy. And television has become an ever present language instructor in most homes, flooding the tundra with the words and phrases of American pop culture.
For centuries, the language of the Delta passed naturally from one generation to the next. But increasingly, Delta parents are grappling with how, where and even why their children should learn Yup'ik. Their answers may determine whether the language of their forebears withers or thrives.
ENGLISH ONLY POLICY
Woven baskets in display cases and a handmade kayak hanging from the ceiling reinforce the feeling that Z. John Williams School is well-rooted in its region. Drawings of local fish and wild animals line the hall, with detailed descriptions of themwritten below the pictures.
But even this academic exercise shows the inexorable mix of languages on the Delta. "Naterrnat pingayunek vitamin aangqertut ukuuluteng-llu vitamin A, D," reads one caption below a drawing of a halibut.
Bilingual education in Alaska goes back nearly 200 years. The first formal schools, established by Russian Orthodox, Jesuit and Moravian missionaries, encouraged Yup'ik and other Alaska Native languages even as they introduced English. Missionaries helped produce the first written alphabets, dictionaries and translations in Yup'ik, which they used to translate the Bible and other works.
By the late 1800s, however, a different theory of language instruction swept through Alaska that proved deadly to Native tongues. To assimilate Native Americans into mainstream America, Alaska educators demanded that students stop speaking their parents' language. Children who didn't were humiliated, threatened and beaten.
The English-only policy of the U.S. Bureau of Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was, wrote University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist Michael Krauss, "cultural genocide in the classroom." Its effect still lingers in rural Alaska. In many communities, only the elders still speak their ancestors' language. By 2050, more than two dozen Alaska Native languages will have disappeared, Krauss predicts.
Yup'ik is an exception. The geographical isolation of lower Yukon and Kuskokwim villages kept English at bay longer than in other regions, according to Krauss. Starting as early as 1970, parents and schools there embraced bilingual education.
Rachel Nicholai is a product of that system. She grew up speaking Yup'ik at home, like her parents and grandparents, but she learned English in school. She went on to college and now teaches 12th grade in Napaskiak, a village of 400 people on the Kuskokwim River a few miles downriver from Bethel.
Nicholai wants her daughter to carry on the family's Yup'ik tradition.
"I want her to continue the language and not let it diminish," she said recently.
In Napaskiak, that means her daughter's first four years of school will be taught in Yup'ik.
SCHOOL IN CRISIS
The Lower Kuskokwim School District offers communities a choice of which language English or Yup'ik their children will study in kindergarten through third grade. Of the district's 21 village schools, 18 have chosen the latter.
In Napaskiak, Kwethluk and other villages, Yup'ik-speaking students learn to read and write, add and subtract in their Native tongue. Though many children know some English, picking it up from their parents, peers or the ubiquitous satellite TV, English instruction in kindergarten is limited to 15 minutes a day. It ramps up rapidly, however, and by fourth grade, classes at every school in the district are taught solely in English.
Not surprisingly, said Napaskiak principal Gloria Ingle, many of her students don't perform well on their third-grade state benchmark tests, which are in English.
"It's like teaching you English to third grade and then giving you a test in French," she said.
Napaskiak students have done well in Yup'ik, winning a statewide bilingual essay contest three years in a row and the district's Battle of the Books. And their test scores rise steadily with time, Ingle said. Four of Napaskiak's five seniors last year passed the new high school exit exam.
The district has asked to translate the third-grade tests into Yup'ik, which could boost students' first benchmark scores. State and federal officials are thinking about it.
But because scores haven't improved under the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, Napaskiak has been designated a school in crisis. If scores don't rise, sanctions will be imposed that can include implementing a new curriculum or replacing the staff.
Ingle argues the scores don't adequately reflect reality on the Delta.
"If you look at the progression (of student improvement over time), that's exactly what a school is supposed to do," she said. "So when they say I'm in crisis, I really can't believe it."
Nicholai said she isn't concerned about her daughter's third-grade test scores.
"This first benchmark doesn't matter to me, because she is just coming from Yup'ik-language instruction. I know she's going to make it through the next two," she said.
Another Napaskiak parent, James Joekay, said the village's decision to teach the primary years of school in Yup'ik was less an academic issue than a cultural choice. They had seen English become their children's predominant language, with television replacing everyday Yup'ik conversation as the main source of vocabulary and ideas, he said.
"To me it's really important" to reinforce Yup'ik in school, Joekay said. "We don't want to lose our Yup'ik language."
Test scores may be low, he said, but there's a trade-off. The language is coming back, he said.
"You can hear the difference in the village," he said. "My kids talk to my parents, their grandparents in Yup'ik. It makes the grandparents happy."
'THINGS ARE VERY, VERY CRITICAL'
Languages become extinct when people stop speaking them, and most of Alaska's 20 indigenous tongues will vanish by the end of this century, according to experts at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"It's very depressing," center director Lawrence Kaplan said. "People are really trying to maintain some of the languages and revive others, but things are very, very critical. We're hoping that the efforts that are under way will have some effect on reversing the decline."
Yup'ik is less endangered than most Alaska languages because it is still passed on in the traditional way by parents speaking to their children. In villages on the Delta, Yup'ik remains the language of subsistence and the natural world, of hunting and fishing and family relationships. The language developed over thousands of years and reflects the Delta's unique environment in a way that English cannot, Yup'ik speakers say.
Teaching it in school alone won't keep Yup'ik alive, but it will help reinforce it, Kaplan said. To thrive, a language must be spoken at home. It must be functional, serve some purpose.
But bilingual education like the Yup'ik program on the Delta has side benefits, he added.
"Most linguists believe the most effective education is delivered in somebody's first language," Kaplan said, "that the best way to start a kid in school is to teach them in what they know rather than what they don't know."
Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Bill Ferguson, who taught in the nearby village of Kasigluk for 30 years and has been superintendent in Bethel for six years, sighs when the subject of bilingual education comes up. It's been debated in the region for decades, he said.
"You can find research to support either argument, that Yup'ik or English makes for better students," he said.
Ferguson is among the people who believe it makes sense to start Yup'ik-speaking students in a Yup'ik classroom. When children are comfortable at school, he said, "the chances of being more focused on learning are better."
But a number of villages in his district want their children to study English, not Yup'ik. Leading the charge is School Board member Lucy Crow.
ENGLISH CALLED ESSENTIAL
A commanding woman who owns a gift shop near Bethel's airport, Crow didn't learn English until she was 12, when her family moved from the tiny village of Nunapitchuk to Kasigluk, which had a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Even now, at 61, she said, "I'm having a helluva time." It takes three or four readings to comprehend her School Board meeting packets, she said. "I don't want the kids to go through what I'm going through."
Crow wants Yup'ik to survive, she said, but it doesn't belong in school.
"English is the basic tool to earn money. Some people say our (Native) people should take over the jobs" available in the Bush, such as pilots, teachers, principals and nurses. "But they can't take over the jobs without going to college," for which English, not Yup'ik, is essential, Crow said.
She scoffs at the idea that parents don't have time to teach their children Yup'ik at home.
"If you believe in your language, turn off the TV, put away the Nintendo, talk to your kids in your Native tongue. That's the only way it's going to stay alive," she said.
Though Crow is in the minority on the Lower Kuskokwim School Board, some Delta parents believe she's right. The coastal village of Nightmute had been among the villages where primary classes were taught in Yup'ik. Several years ago parents voted to switch to English.
"A majority of people in Nightmute speak Yup'ik at home, with their kids," said Sandra Tulik, an aide at the school and lifelong resident. "They figured that since they're speaking Yup'ik at home, they wanted to start earlier in English."
Nightmute School still provides an hour a day of Yup'ik instruction for every student from kindergarten through 12th grade. It improves their oral and written skills in their native tongue, principal Kathleen Bohach said.
Though she arrived in Nightmute after the village adopted the English primary-grade curriculum, Bohach said she understands parents' choice.
"Our feet are being held to the fire" by high-stakes standardized tests and the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, she said. Nobody wants his or her school taken over by the state.
Most Delta villages, however, have chosen Yup'ik for their primary-school students. The Delta has a long history of fighting to keep Yup'ik tradition and sovereignty alive, and for many residents the Native language instruction is an act of political expression and cultural renewal.
Others see more practical reasons for teaching Yup'ik in school and leaving English for home study. Nicholai, the teacher who grew up in Napaskiak, agrees that times are changing and that a cash economy is supplanting the Delta's traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Precisely because she and her husband work regular jobs, she said, "I don't have time at home to teach the alphabet, the phonics, in Yup'ik." It makes more sense to practice English at home, Nicholai said, because English-language workbooks and learning materials are readily available.
'ENGLISH ISN'T THE ONLY ISSUE'
Determining how best to serve Yup'ik-speaking students would be easy if there were a direct link between test scores and first-language programs. But there's not, said Bev Williams, the Lower Kuskokwim district's director of academic programs. Benchmark test scores last year showed no improvement at 17 of the district's 27 schools, some of which teach in Yup'ik in the primary years and some where English is the first language.
Test scores rise and fall for a variety of reasons, Williams said. "English isn't the only issue."
Whether the school is in Kwethluk, Ketchikan or Kenai, attendance is a major factor in student success, Williams said, and parental involvement in a child's education is crucial. Staff turnover, which is a chronic problem at some rural schools, can affect academic progress, as can overcrowding, dilapidated facilities and a stable home life. Rural Alaska schools have their share of problems, Williams said, but, she added, "the schools can't be answerable for dealing with all the social problems and the educational problems."
While student success varies widely throughout the Delta, one constant remains, said Ferguson, the superintendent.
"Parents' number-one priority is fluency in both languages so they can be a success in both worlds," he said. Parents in Bethel embraced that view when they lobbied the district for another language program. At Ayaprun Immersion School, English-speaking students study in Yup'ik-only classes.
It's challenging for the students, who come to school speaking little or no Yup'ik, said co-principal Agatha John-Shield. "Our (Yup'ik) parents say that even if you don't understand (the words), eventually you'll get it."
John-Shield, who grew up in Toksook Bay and married a black man , said Bethel parents wanted a school to provide what many homes could not: Yup'ik instruction. The city of nearly 6,000 people is the melting pot of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Almost 70 percent of the population is all or part Alaska Native, with the remainder a mix of Euro-, Asian- and African-American. Ayaprun reflects Bethel's diversity and its Yup'ik roots, she said.
"Some of our parents don't speak the language because their parents were punished for speaking it" in school years ago, she said. "So we're going back, giving (Yup'ik) back to the parents through the school."
It hasn't been easy, John-Shield added. "One of our parents said recently that if we were some type of species, the federal government would be trying to keep us alive. Our language is endangered," she said.
Some people in Bethel believe Ayaprun is trying to teach "the old ways," John-Shield said, "that a kayak is better than a skiff and outboard. We're not trying to go way back. We're just integrating the two, to make a balance between both worlds."
But achieving that balance is becoming more difficult yet increasingly important, Ferguson said. When he arrived on the Delta 35 years ago, parents and grandparents speaking in Yup'ik were the source of information and entertainment. Now television and the Internet fill young minds with stories and words.
"Most kids don't hear Yup'ik at home," Ferguson said. "Until that changes, Yup'ik culture will be a dying culture. It has to come from the home. School systems can help sustain it. But we can't keep it alive without their help."
Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at 257-4310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.|
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.