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Kodiak Natives' album effort to preserve dying language

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By Scott Christiansen -- Kodiak Daily Mirror

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) - Enthusiasm and humor were contagious Jan. 24 while Susan Malutin and Teresa Clark donned headphones and took a second turn at a pair of microphones in the main gallery of Kodiak's Alutiiq Museum.

The women had just finished a carefully annunciated version of ''Miktengcusqaq miskiiRaq,'' an Alutiiq translation of the children's song ''Itsy Bitsy Spider.''

''Good,'' producer Stephen Blanchett said. ''Now give me a silly one.''

Blanchett had previously recorded a group chorus. Now he was listening for, and capturing, individual voices for the song's final mix. He tapped a computer keyboard on the table in front of him. One of the sliding controls on the sound mixing board patched to the computer moved as if an invisible hand touched it.

''OK, for real this time.''

''For real?'' Clark asked.

''For real. Just be silly. This one is for the kids.''

Malutin and Clark went through the next take with high-pitched girlish voices. All around the room cheeks swelled. Dimples revealed themselves, and women covered their mouths to prevent giggles from reaching Blanchett's microphones.

By the time they got to the words paipaq mayunqiiskii (''the pipe it climbed up again''), everyone was cracking up.

As lighthearted and downright goofy as the scene seemed, its also part of a weightier, more important story.

The Sugpiaq people, Natives of Kodiak, are working hard on several fronts to preserve their language. Alutiiq is likely spoken by fewer than 100 people in Alaska.

Alutiiq Museum Director Sven Haakanson Jr., a Harvard-trained anthropologist who is also Sugpiak, estimates that between 35 and 50 original speakers live on Kodiak Island today.

''Were fighting a falling tide on this one. The language is disappearing and if we don't do something about it - if we don't do something about it now - it's going to disappear,'' Haakanson said.

A children's song that's fun to sing and includes words for ''rain,'' ''spider'' and ''up'' can help. It can likely help in a way that a picture book, and almost certainly a dictionary, can't.

Over five days in mid-January, Sugpiaq singers with ties to every community on Kodiak Island came together to record songs. Not just children's songs, but also Christian hymns sung in Alutiiq, Slavonic and other songs native to Kodiak.

A CD from the sessions will be available for sale later in the year, and museum workers say demand from visitors already exists.

For Malutin, a second-year student in an Alutiiq language preservation program, the recording sessions have already been an important event.

''The best thing was to have so many of our elders here together in one place at the same time,'' Malutin said.

Clyda Christensen, 86, is one of the elders who made time to share songs and her knowledge of the language. Elders sang, and also rehearsed with younger singers, coaching their pronunciation.

Christensen grew up in Karluk and remembers when the town had seven canneries operating during the summer and hundreds of residents.

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Karluk had 27 residents in 2005, according to census data. More recently, Karluk residents said about 40 people live there.

''There was about 300 people [in Karluk] when I was growing up. My dad, he was from Sweden, and he used to say there was about 500 people there when he met my mom,'' Christensen said.

She grew up speaking English in school and with her father, and Alutiiq with her mom. As a little girl she would listen to house guests speak Alutiiq with her mother over tea.

This is how she first got word of airplanes. She says she misunderstood at first.

''I heard them say that many years from now, people are not going to use boats or dories. But they are going to fly through the air. I remember running to my sister and telling her, 'We're going to fly! Maybe we'll have wings like seagulls. I think that's what mom and them are talking about,''' she said.

Christensen, like many people her age, refers to the Alutiiq language as ''Aleut.'' She recognizes which island village a speaker is from by their accent.

''They called us the North-enders. Our language is the same as Old Harbor and Akhiok, but the dialect is a little different,'' she said.

''When we would all sing together, it was sometimes hard for us to follow them. They sing a little different - but the same songs.''

The Orthodox caroling tradition, called ''starring,'' was part of growing up in Karluk, Christensen said. This week's recordings came right at the end of the church's Christmas holidays, which come in the beginning of January.

''It's caroling,'' Christensen said. ''We go starring. The stars are stars that we carry. And we would carry them into every home. It's carrying Jesus into every home.''

The museum's language manager, April Laktonen-Counselor, guessed that about one-fourth of all the original Alutiiq speakers living on Kodiak participated in the recordings.

''I think the starring songs had a lot to do with that, and the general upbeat nature of singing. I think that this time of year there was a hunger for that,'' Laktonen-Counselor said.

While Blanchett was packing up his equipment Jan. 24 he talked about his work. Blanchett is Yupik, and a member of the vocal group Pamyua, one of Alaska's most popular singing groups. His band mixes influences from Yupik, Greenland Inuit, American soul singing and more. They've released three albums and won a Native American Music Award in 2003.

For the last two years, Blachett has been picking up jobs with his field recording equipment. He's traveled to Barrow, Tatitlek and Chenega Bay, among other places.

''I'm all about making recordings and CDs because we don't have anything to listen to,'' he said. ''And its great to be with the elders. It's been like that, laughing, since I got here last week.''

Blanchett paused while packing and talked about the ''vibe'' in the museum's gallery.

''We were upstairs in the boardroom and then we had to come down here,'' he said. ''They had to have a board meeting. When they said we could go back up there I said, 'No, I like it better here.'''

The singers were more

comfortable in the museum than the boardroom, ''even with the interruptions,'' he said.

He waved a hand toward a display case containing oil lamps carved from stone.

''I like doing it here, down here next to these thousand-year-old things.''