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Indigenous Anchorage is in the Middle of Everywhere

By Brandon T. Locke | Published: February 11, 2020

Growth in indigenous language programs underscores the resilience of indigenous peoples around the world and across the United States. It is apropos that the United Nations declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The UN recommends multilingual education to preserve indigenous languages, “as many are in danger of disappearing and inclusive education has a fundamental role in preserving them,” says UN Assistant Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

A map of the Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska
The indigeneous regions and languages of Alaska.
A larger version and more informaton can be found
at the University of Alaska Fairbanks's website.

I am fortunate to live in Anchorage, Alaska, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. As the Director of Anchorage School District’s World Languages and Immersion Programs, I am reminded of the richness of indigenous peoples’ languages and cultures on a daily basis. The Anchorage School District (ASD) of approximately 48,000 students is home to students who represent over 100 first or home languages after English. One of the top five home languages spoken by ASD students is Yup’ik, an Alaska Native language. Yup’ik is also the second most spoken indigenous language in the United States, after Navajo. Yup’ik is spoken by Bering Sea Eskimos who settled in southwestern Alaska (Bethel area) after crossing the Bering Sea Land Bridge about 28,000 years ago. The State of Alaska has 20 official (Alaska Native) languages, in addition to English. However, in January of 2018, the Alaska Dispatch News (now the Anchorage Daily News) reported that “Alaska Native languages are in a ‘linguistic emergency’ and, tragically, most are predicted to be extinct or dormant by the end of the 21st century, unless action is taken to save them.

Eager to start an immersion program in one of Alaska’s indigenous languages, ASD submitted a proposal in late summer of 2017 to the Native American Language Program (NAL@ED), a program of the U.S. Department of Education. ASD is not new to immersion. In fact, our first immersion program began in 1989 in Japanese. Since then, programs have been added in Spanish, Russian, German, Mandarin Chinese and French. Establishing an Alaska Native language immersion program was an important next step, and we quickly realized that there are very few U.S. indigenous language immersion programs in urban settings in the United States. In the fall of 2018, College Gate Elementary opened its doors to the district’s first Alaska Native language immersion program, in Yup’ik.

A teacher in the Yup'ik immersion program guides a group of kindergarten students seated on mats.
A teacher in the ASD Yup'ik Immersion 
Program with her kindergarten students. 

Deciding which Alaska Native language to select for this program was not easy. The Anchorage area is situated on Dena’ina land, and the Dena’ina people historically speak Dena’ina, not Yup’ik. Besides the Dena’ina living in Anchorage, there are many other Native Alaskans who do not have Yup’ik roots. However, in the end, Yup’ik was selected for multiple reasons. Recently two pre-school programs in Yup’ik immersion were launched by Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Cook Inlet Native Head Start in Anchorage. Our hope is that these two programs will prepare pre-schoolers to easily transition into the ASD’s Yup’ik program. Other reasons for selecting Yup’ik included availability of licensed teachers and existing instructional materials from Bethel. A 2016 community survey also ranked Yup’ik as the top Indigenous language of interest. Yup’ik also placed third in overall interest, a remarkable fact considering that more than 100 languages are spoken at home with ASD’s student population. Click here to watch a short video showcasing Anchorage’s Yup’ik Immersion Program.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK-R) visits a Yup'ik immersion classroom.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK-R), who 
was instrumental in allocating funds for 
NAL@ED grants, visits a Yup'ik classroom.

Alaska celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October. It is not a coincidence that this holiday falls on the federally recognized Columbus Day. This is an opportunity for Alaskans to stand together to honor our rich Native Alaskan languages and cultures. It’s also a time when students and educators learn about this holiday from an indigenous perspective. In fact, I recently read a blog post by the Smithsonian entitled, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Rethinking How We Celebrate American History.” We could localize this national effort and focus on rethinking how we celebrate Alaskan history.

I am hopeful that we can use the momentum gained in 2019’s International Year of Indigenous Languages to continue the important work of revitalizing, cultivating, and supporting indigenous languages at home and around the world. This past December, the United Nations declared that the International Decade of Indigenous Languages will begin in 2022. Urgent steps must be taken at national and international levels, and this resolution will spur on many to take action.

(A note: the title of this post is inspired by Mary Pipher’s book about refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska entitled The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community. Like Lincoln, Anchorage is often perceived to be remote or in the middle of nowhere. We are, however, rich in linguistic and cultural diversity from (im)migrants from around the world as well as our many incredibly rich Native Alaskan communities.)

About the Author

A headshot of author Brandon Locke

Brandon Locke is the Director of World Languages and Immersion Programs at the Anchorage School District in Alaska, where he oversees K–12 immersion and non-immersion language programs in 8 different languages for approximately 8,000 students. He was a Lac du Bois villager, staff member, and dean, and currently serves as dean of Concordia’s Teacher Seminars and STARTALK programs. Currently a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, Brandon’s passion and research interests include indigenous language revitalization, language immersion programming, and teacher education.

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