Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

ANCHORAGE — Alaska is home to a rich tapestry of more than 20 Native languages, but some are fading and others are threatened.

Now a group of Native scholars is urging the University of Alaska System to adopt a major overhaul of its Indigenous language programs in a fight against time to preserve living cultural treasures.

“We are past the point of crisis,” said X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes and associate professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.

“Now is the time and we’re not going to wait until tomorrow.”

X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell is a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes and associate professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Set against the backdrop of stubbornly low graduation rates for Alaska Native students and diminishing faculty representation, the group - the Alaska Native Studies Council - has petitioned university leaders to act, and act fast.

University officials say they are listening. In part because of previous lobbying from the professors’ group, the institution’s board of regents in January launched the Alaska Native Success Initiative, a system-wide examination of practices on all three of the university’s campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

The initiative is aimed at creating a five-year plan to improve the participation and success of Alaska Native students and improve Native representation throughout the university system.

Dr. Paul W. Layer, vice president for academics, students and research at the southeast campus in Juneau, said that the council’s language studies proposals will be considered in the process.

“We need to take some steps to address some of the issues in our system with regards to inequities in terms of our faculty hires, our student enrollment, our staff and some of our academic programs,” Layer said.

Alaska Native languages educators stand on a beach outside of Kenai Penninsula College in Soldotna, Alaska, during a 2019 seminar put on by the Alaska Native Studies Council. The council is now demanding that the University of Alaska System make a major investment in language curriculum and programs to support Alaska Native students and faculty. (Photo courtesy of Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart )

Lack of support

The centerpiece of the council’s petition is a call for the formation of a separate College of Alaska Native Languages under the university’s umbrella to issue degrees and certify teachers. Without it, the scholars wrote to the regents, the languages “will continue to move towards death.”

And they want more support for Native faculty and students. Alaska Native representation among the faculty across the university system’s three campuses has plummeted 44 percent in the last two years, from 43 full-time faculty members to just 24, according to the group.

The drop, they say, is the result of practices that for too long have relegated Native language programs to second-tier status.

“Most universities are still very racialized structures and they struggle with understanding or even supporting not only the faculty but our curriculum and even the students,” said Maria Williams, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes and an Alaska Native studies professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Our programs don’t get supported,” she said. “I have no admin support, and there are no other programs that don’t get admin support or tech support, so we end up getting stretched very thin.”

Dr. Paul W. Layer, vice president for academics, students and research at the University of Alaska, acknowledges the institution needs to make some changes to address demands from Alaska Native professors to improve conditions for Indigenous faculty and students. “We need to take some steps to address some of the issues in our system with regards to inequities in terms of our faculty hires, our student enrollment, our staff and some of our academic programs.” Here he is speaking with Indian Country Today via Zoom.

The statistics on Native students’ graduation rates are consistently low, though the overall graduation rate at the University of Alaska system is above 30 percent.

“We only graduate about 10 percent of our Alaska Native students - that’s a 90 percent drop-out rate,” Williams said. “That has been consistent forever, and that’s a problem.”

Layer, the university vice president, acknowledged the shortcoming. “That is clearly a question of equity that we need to address,” he said.

(RELATED NEWSCAST: Determined to save Indigenous languages)

The scholars hosted a virtual gathering of about 15 Alaska Native language students and teachers from across the state at the end of March to kick off their campaign for a dedicated language college.

“This is our first official Zoom Alaska Native language party,” Williams announced before opening up the floor for comments.

Language teacher and Gwichyaa Gwich’in Tribal citizen Rochelle Adams joined a Zoom gathering of Alaska Native languages students and educators in early 2021. “When I speak my language, my heart is really happy,” she said. (Photo via Zoom by Stewart Huntington)

Dinjii zhuh k’yaa gikhii daì’ shidrih łyâa shroonch’yaa,” language teacher and Gwichyaa Gwich’in tribal citizen Rochelle Adams, said in her Native Gwich’in language, before translating the phrase into English.

“When I speak my language, my heart is really happy.”

Understanding the inequities

Language is central to a deeper understanding of the issues facing Native students.

“To learn our language, we learn more about our deep meanings of the culture,” said Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, a Chickaloon Native Village tribal citizen and Alaska Native Studies instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Knowledge of language, in fact, is the root to addressing the equity concerns raised repeatedly by the scholars, they say. They wrote in October to the ANCSA Regional Association made up of the presidents and chief executive officers of the 12 land-based Alaska Native regional corporations.

“Our concerns have been ignored,” they wrote, “and there has yet to be effective action taken to show a dedicated and coordinated effort to increase diversity and to increase Alaska Native student retention and graduation rates.”

Layer is optimistic.

“We’ve done studies in the past and we’ve looked at ... statistics in the past but never really produced any measurable change or measurable programs to implement,” he said. “So this (initiative) we’d like to think is going to be different.”

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