The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas

Native language is theme of Elders and Youth Conference

Elders listen to people speak the Yup’ik language during an Alaska Native Language Circle at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.
Bill Roth / ADN

The importance of Alaska Native languages to culture, identity and individual well-being took center stage Monday as the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference — the precursor to the biggest Native gathering of the year — began in Anchorage.

A teenager from Yakutat gave his keynote address before a packed crowd of hundreds in Tlingit, then English, explaining that some Native words cannot be translated.

A fluent Inupiaq speaker from Nome expressed regret to everyone who never had the chance to learn their Native language, and to those who decades ago were punished for speaking it.

Members of the state’s new Alaska Native language council urged that more be done to study and restore languages, as a way to save the culture.

The three-day Elders and Youth Conference, celebrating its 30th year, is drawing about 1,200 participants from Barrow to Kodiak to Metlakatla, plus vendors and artists. Its theme this year is “Get Up! Stand Up!” The conference connects youths to their Alaska Native culture with song and dance and also puts attention on deeper issues including homelessness and suicide.

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