Film screening highlights struggle to preserve native language

“Yesterday I went outside and I cried. I thought, What am I doing crying? It’s just a language. But what is just a language?” 

So begins the 23-minute film, “Kiputmen Naukurlurpet: Let It Grow Back.” A documentary made in 2004 for the Pratt Museum by people from the nearby Native village of Port Graham and a filmmaking team from Homer, “Let It Grow Back” documents the village’s struggle to keep its native language alive.

Last Friday night, the museum partnered with Friends of the Homer Library to show the movie and host a discussion about its production and what has changed in Port Graham in the 11 years since the film was made.

Homer storyteller Wendy Erd produced the movie as part of a series of films included in permanent exhibit by the Pratt: “Kachemak Bay: An Exploration of People and Place.” The film was a collaboration with Vera Meganack of Port Graham, to whom Erd dedicated Friday’s screening – Meganack died earlier this month.

In introducing the movie to the audience of 30-plus people at the library Friday, Erd explained that “Let It Grow Back” was an experiment in community-based filmmaking.

“We were shifting to not having expert curators tell the stories, but asking communities, what is your story? How can it be told? Help us create what’s in the museum,” she said.

When Erd traveled to Port Graham and asked resident Herman Moonin Jr., what story he wanted to tell about the community, he said he wanted to explain how they lost their language, and figure out if they could ever get it back.

In 2004, only a handful of elders in the community spoke the Sugt’estun Alutiiq language fluently. The language had become a casualty of the interaction between Native and western culture: growing up, these older villagers were taught by westerners that their language was something to be ashamed of. One woman in the film recalled a teacher making her stand in front of the class and brush her teeth with soap as punishment for speaking Alutiiq.

“When my kids were born I didn’t want them to be spanked, I didn’t want them to be degraded,” explained another community member in the movie. “I felt like I was being degraded. So I just taught them English. Now they don’t understand me.”

Most village members took the same approach, and as a result the majority of adults in Port Graham can’t speak Alutiiq. Now that villagers have recovered pride in their traditions and made the language part of grade school curricula, students are having trouble mastering it because they can’t practice with their parents at home.

Sally Ash, who teaches the language at the school in Port Graham’s sister village of Nanwalek, says that Alaska Natives are feeling the effects of that generation gap even more intensely now. With some 200 total villagers in Nanwalek this year, she told the Homer News, only about 10 speak Alutiiq fluently.

The loss is deeper than a few vocabulary words, Port Graham villagers explained in the film.

“Our connection to our culture is through our language,” said a young man, shaking his head at the camera. “I see it dying and I’d like to help, but how? How can I help with something I don’t know myself?”

Another Native audience member on Friday expressed similar feelings. Julien Jacobs, who recently moved to Homer from Bethel, remembers learning nearly a hundred different words to describe snow. Differences in the wind direction or depth of ice could be explained using precise vocabulary.

“You lose this whole science just because of losing some of the language,” he said. “It’s changing now, obviously. We don’t have a hundred different versions of snow, we have maybe three or four because it’s just not there.”

Conscious of the fact that outsiders were the cause of the problem in the first place, Erd was clear in making the film that it was all about what the villagers wanted to say. She and Vera Meganack shared leadership in the production process. They showed all raw footage to the community and asked for their ideas about what to include and how best to tell the story.

When it was completed, “Let It Grow Back” was almost a eulogy to the language and the culture it represented.

“We no longer have an identity. We’re a dying race,” said a young villager on camera. “It’s just, how do we say goodbye gracefully? How do we hang onto what we have?”

Eleven years later, the outlook is slightly more optimistic.

On Friday, Pratt exhibit coordinator Scott Bartlett told the audience that the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a grant of nearly $7.5 million to Chugachmiut, the non-profit that serves the Native people of the Chugach region, to support language preservation and education. With some of the funding, the Pratt Museum is helping the villages across the bay to produce “heritage kits.” Bartlett said the kits will make it easier for educators to transport traditional knowledge between communities.

The grant also will support the two-week immersion camps that Port Graham has hosted for students from all the Native communities around Kachemak Bay that speak the Sugt’estun Alutiiq language. For the last three years, language-learners have been paired with the villages’ fluent elders, who pass on not just vocabulary words but traditions. Last year, the students produced a CD of traditional songs in both Alutiiq and English that are available at the Pratt.

Port Graham Village Chief Patrick Norman couldn’t make it to the film screening Friday because the village was in the midst of an intensive two-week language training. He sent an email message to be read in his absence, explaining that besides teaching the Sugt’estun Alutiiq language in schools, the village also is working to address the generation gap.

“A new curriculum specific to adults will be developed this year with the goal being that what our children are being taught will be used by the parents and adults to be able to speak to their children at home and around the village,” he wrote.

Last month, Sally Ash attended a linguistic conference in Albuquerque, N.M., where she said hearing a Scottish man talk about reviving Gaelic gave her hope.

Meanwhile, local historian Janet Klein told the audience on Friday that the University of Alaska-Fairbanks-sponsored Alaska Native Language Center has an online database that allows people to access songs and translations.

Another potential solution blends ancient culture with the most modern of technology.

Port Graham has developed a language-learning app that is being programmed to hold all existing knowledge of the Sugt’estun Alutiiq language. Norman wrote that the app will be available for free on iTunes soon.

Julien Jacobs, the audience member from Bethel, is taking that innovation a step further.

He’s working on an app that will be able to speak back to users in Native languages.

Jacobs gave moviegoers a sneak preview. As he moved his phone around the room, it showed onlookers a virtual reality — 360 degrees of a natural scene, with snow-capped mountains and flying birds.

“You’ll be able to ask, ‘What are those birds?’ and it’ll tell you,” he said.

All of these efforts are steps in the right direction, said audience members visiting from Nanwalek. But reviving a dying language won’t be quite as easy as downloading an app. The Alutiiq language has been passed down orally for centuries, and learning it in a classroom setting is hard work.

In the meantime, Erd said she’s happy that the film has helped the people of Port Graham share their story. She showed “Let It Grow Back” at a film festival in Yunan, China, a few years ago, live-dubbed in Chinese, and indigenous people there said they recognized the story as their own. The movie also inspired her to spend the last decade working on more community-based films. 

In the end, that community element was what was most important, she said. The opportunity to reflect on a communal story brought village elders and young people together in the very kind of conversation that language exists to provide: one about tradition and the future and what holds a culture together.

The last few minutes of the movie show footage from that conversation: young and old heads bent together over notebooks at a table.

“The film was just the product,” Erd said. “And what was really happening was we were creating an environment where people could talk together about the language.”

Annie Rosenthal can be reached at