Bristol Bay students connect with Yup'ik language in class

Apr 28, 2017

In Dillingham and communities around the bay, schools are creating spaces for students to learn about their native languages and cultures.  

Credit KDLG

Around Bristol Bay, students attend classes where they learn to speak Yup’ik and to sing and dance Yup’ik songs that have been passed down for generation. In Dillingham, children begin instruction in native culture from a very young age and can continue until they graduate.

"Wiinga atka Yugtun Atkiq. Aanaka Alaqnaqirmiunullruuq aataka-llu Connecticut-armiunullruuq. Wiinga taugaam Curyungmiunga. Kass’atun-llu Michelle Snyder-agunga,” said the teacher before translating, "My name is Atkiq Michelle Ilutsik Snyder, and I am a high school Yup'ik studies and social studies teacher here in Dillingham."

Snyder has taught this elective course since 2016 and modeled it after Yup’ik language courses she took at the University of Alaska. She speaks smoothly and confidently, but she is not fluent. Many in her generation did not grow up learning their native language.

“The language was taken away from us essentially. The students in my mom’s generation that went to school, they were punished for speaking the language. So I think that translated to, when they had kids, they had this wall built in place for them not wanting to speak the language because of what they’d gone through when they spoke it,” said Snyder.

She and teachers who have taught Yup’ik before her in Dillingham work to ensure students have a place in the school to learn their language, often for the first time.

“It matters because this is probably the only time that I’m going to be able to learn it,” said Kayla Miller, a Dillingham High School junior. “All of my grandparents and the elders that I know are dying off, and there’s nobody else to really teach it.”

Kayla Miller sews a pair of beaver fur mittens.
Credit KDLG

Snyder focuses on teaching students to read and write in the language. Still, she augments vocabulary and grammar lessons with cultural activities and crafts. Students sit at their desks carefully threading tiny, colored beads onto strips of felt.

“I’m working on a headdress. The women in my culture who were not married would have loops made out of lots beads, while the women were married would have fur on it,” said 10th-grader Madison Williams.

With some coaching from Snyder, she uses a Yup’ik word she learned in class to describe her work.

“It’s Assirtuq. It means 'it’s good,'" said Williams.

Outside the classroom, students put their language skills to use, speaking with elders and even communicating with friends and family online.

“It’s actually really cool because as I’m scrolling through Facebook I have some friends who speak Yup’ik, and they’ll post, and I’ll be like ‘Hey, I can understand that,’” said 9th grader Jenice Cox. 

Madison Williams strings beads on a headdress.
Credit KDLG

Developing a class like this one, however, can be a tough task. There is no high school Yup’ik curriculum to buy, but there is a loose network of other Yup’ik teachers in the region. Snyder’s mother is one of them. Esther Arnaq Ilutsik is the director of Yup’ik studies for the Southwest Region School District.

“Culture and language go hand in hand. One of our hopes and dreams is that we’ll give enough language instruction to our students before they leave our school system that they begin to start understanding our ancient Yup’ik language because there’s so many things we can’t translate,” said Ilutsik.

For students in Aleknagik, Clarks Point, Ekwok, Koliganek, Manokotak, New Stuyahok, Togiak, and Twin Hills, it’s a part regular curriculum from kindergarten through twelfth grade. They begin with storytelling and traditional chants. By the time students are in middle school, classes are conducted entirely in Yup’ik. In high school, they introduce Inupiaq and focus on Yup’ik reading and writing.

In other parts of the bay it’s more complicated. The Lake and Peninsula and the Bristol Bay Borough School Districts cover a mix of Alutiiq, Dena’ina, and Yupik communities. The cost of language instructors and the number of languages represented can be prohibitive. Language instruction across these communities tends to be sporadic, and dependent on community involvement.

But a common theme across districts, regardless of the way they are integrating instruction, seems to be a desire to sustain native culture through teaching the language. Snyder emphasized that at a time when students may not hear their native language in their home, it’s vital that they practice it in the schoolroom. 

“It’s really important for students to have that in the school to have that connection in the school to have that connection to culture, have that connection to the community, and feel proud of who they are as Yupik people,” said Snyder.

When there is time, Dillingham’s Yup’ik  class concludes with a treat—Yuraq, which means Yupik dance.

Students stand in a line at the front of the class, their feet planted. Snyder sings and beats a circular drum. The students move from their hips, their hand motions the focal point as they perform a purification dance.

When the bell rings, the students aren’t ready to stop dancing.

Contact the author at avery@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Michelle Snyder has taught the Yup'ik language class at Dillingham High School since Spring of 2016.
Credit KDLG

Students perform a purification dance.
Credit KDLG