Alaska Native Collections

September 28, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Alaska, Education, Maps, Naming, Siberia | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today I want to share a very good general resource I found las week: the Alaska Native Collections site, by the Smithsonian institute. Despite its name, the site includes information about Alaska but also about Russia or other polar contruies. The site is not only beautifully designed but also packed with a lot of maps, photographies and information, allowing the visitor to learn about the arctic cultures easily. If you just want to learn a few basics, you can do a quick reading, if you want to deep more, you just need to open the “Read more” sections.

Through the Sharing Knowledge project, members of Indigenous communities from across Alaska and northeast Siberia are working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Anchorage Museum to interpret the materials, techniques, cultural meanings, history, and artistry represented by objects in the western arctic and subarctic collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. The Arctic Studies Center, which organized and implemented the project, is a special research program within the Department of Anthropology, NMNH, with offices in Washington and at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

The goals of Sharing Knowledge are to make the Smithsonian collections accessible to all and to support cross-cultural learning among Indigenous home communities, in schools, and around the world. Interest in the extraordinary arts and cultural heritage of the North is truly global in scope. Participants in this project are Elders, scholars, artists, and teachers who invite all to explore, learn, and appreciate.

The combined holdings of NMNH and NMAI are vast—more than 30,000 items from Alaska and northeast Siberia, most collected between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. The great majority has never been published, exhibited, or seen by contemporary residents of source communities in the North. Collaborative study of these collections for Sharing Knowledge began in 2001-2005, with a series of trips to the museums in Washington by more than forty Elders and regional representatives. This documentation process will continue as many more objects are brought from Washington to new Smithsonian exhibition galleries and Arctic Studies Center facilities at the Anchorage Museum, starting in 2010. Through its alliance with the Arctic Studies Center (since 1993) and its planned physical expansion to house these programs and collections, the Anchorage Museum has become an important Smithsonian partner in fostering the collaborative work of museums and Native communities.

Object records on this site include edited transcripts of museum discussions as well as summaries drawn from history, anthropology, and recorded oral tradition. The Cultures section includes regional introductions and information about contributors. The Resources section offers reading materials, web links, and a curriculum guide with lesson plans designed for middle and high school students.

The Sharing Knowledge site reflects the current state of an on-going project, with inevitable gaps and uneven representation of the different cultural regions. It will grow over time as more information is recorded and new contributors can be brought into the discussion. Please watch the site for continually updated materials and features.

Photography (C) Larry McNeil

As I mentioned this place has tones and tones of info about the cultures and the people, so it seems an unforgetable place to ask for help whenever I can manage to do the big trip!

Deepening in Alaska indigenous languages

July 26, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Posted in Language, Naming | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Few months ago I promised to deepen in the Alaska Native Languages Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. So did I, and I listed all the languages they describe ont heir site:

Aleut: Unangax^ (Aleut) is one branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Its territory in Alaska encompasses the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and the Alaska Peninsula west of Stepovak Bay. Unangax^ is a single language divided at Atka Island into the Eastern and the Western dialects. Of a population of about 2,200 Unangax^, about 300 speak the language. This language was formerly called Aleut, a general term for introduced by Russian explorers and fur traders to refer to Native Alaskan of the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound (see the section on the Alutiiq language). The term Unangax^ means ‘person’ and probably derives from the root una, which refers to the seaside. The plural form ‘people’ is pronounced Unangas in the western dialect and Unangan in the eastern dialect, and these terms are also sometimes used to refer to the language. The indigenous term for the language is Unangam

Alutiiq: Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) is a Pacific Gulf variety of Yupik Eskimo spoken in two dialects from the Alaska Peninsula to Prince William Sound, including Kodiak Island. Of a total population of about 3,000 Alutiiq people, about 400 still speak the language. Although traditionally the people called themselves Sugpiaq (suk ‘person’ plus -piaq ‘real’), the name Alutiiq was adopted from a Russian plural form of Aleut, which Russian invaders applied to the Native people they encountered from Attu to Kodiak. Closely related to Central Alaskan Yup’ik, the Alutiiq language is divided into the Koniag and the Chugach dialects. Koniag Alutiiq is spoken on the upper part of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island (and Afognak Island before it was deserted following the 1964 earthquake). Chugach Alutiiq is spoken on the Kenai Peninsula from English Bay and Port Graham to Prince William Sound where it meets Eyak. The first work on Alutiiq literacy was done by Russian Orthodox monks Herman and Gideon and the talented student Chumovitski, although their progress continued only until about 1807 and almost none of their work survives. After that, a few others – notably Tyzhnov, Uchilishchev, and Zyrianov – worked on the language during the Russian period, producing a translation of Matthew, a Catechism, and primer, but they achieved less success than those who worked in Aleut. The first modern linguistic work on Alutiiq was done by Irene Reed in the early 1960s and by Jeff Leer beginning in 1973. Leer has produced both a grammar and a dictionary of Koniag Alutiiq for classroom use.

Ahtna: Ahtna Athabascan is the language of the Copper River and the upper Susitna and Nenana drainages in eight communities. The total population is about is about 500 with perhaps 80 speakers. The first extensive linguistic work on Ahtna was begun in 1973 by James Kari, who published a comprehensive dictionary of the language in 1990.

Central Alaskan Yup’ik: Central Alaskan Yup’ik lies geographically and linguistically between Alutiiq and Siberian Yupik. The use of the apostrophe in Central Alaskan Yup’ik, as opposed to Siberian Yupik, denotes a long p. The word Yup’ik represents not only the language but also the name for the people themselves (yuk ‘person’ plus pik ‘real’.) Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the largest of the state’s Native languages, both in the size of its population and the number of speakers. Of a total population of about 21,000 people, about 10,000 are speakers of the language. Children still grow up speaking Yup’ik as their first language in 17 of 68 Yup’ik villages, those mainly located on the lower Kuskokwim River, on Nelson Island, and along the coast between the Kuskokwim River and Nelson Island. The main dialect is General Central Yup’ik, and the other four dialects are Norton Sound, Hooper Bay-Chevak, Nunivak, and Egegik. In the Hooper Bay-Chevak and Nunivak dialects, the name for the language and the people is “Cup’ik” (pronounced Chup-pik). Early linguistic work in Central Yup’ik was done primarily by Russian Orthodox, then Jesuit Catholic and Moravian missionaries, leading to a modest tradition of literacy used in letter writing. In the 1960s, Irene Reed and others at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks developed a modern writing system for the language, and their work led to the establishment of the state’s first school bilingual programs in four Yup’ik villages in the early 1970s. Since then a wide variety of bilingual materials has been published, as well as Steven Jacobson’s comprehensive dictionary of the language and his complete practical classroom grammar, and story collections and narratives by many others including a full novel by Anna Jacobson.

Deg Xinag: Deg Xinag (also Deg Hit’an; formerly known by the pejorative Ingalik) is the Athabascan language of Shageluk and Anvik and of the Athabascans at Holy Cross below Grayling on the lower Yukon River. Of a total population of about 275 Ingalik people, about 40 speak the language. A collection of traditional folk tales by the elder Belle Deacon was published in 1987, and a literacy manual in 1993.

Dena’ina: Dena’ina (Tanaina) is the Athabascan language of the Cook Inlet area with four dialects on the Kenai Peninsula, Upper Inlet area above Anchorage, and coastal and inland areas of the west side of Cook Inlet. Of the total population of about 900 people, about 75 speak the language. James Kari has done extensive work on the language since 1972, including his edition with Alan Boraas of the collected writings of Peter Kalifornsky in 1991.

Eyak: Eyak is not an Athabascan language, but a coordinate sub-branch to Athabascan as a whole in the Athabascan-Eyak branch of the Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit language family. Eyak was spoken in the 19th century from Yakutat along the southcentral Alaska coast to Eyak at the Copper River delta, but by the 20th century only at Eyak. It is now represented by about 50 people but no surviving fluent speakers.only one remaining speaker, born in 1920 and living in Anchorage. Comprehensive documentation of Eyak has been carried out since the 1960s by Michael Krauss, including his edition of traditional stories, historic accounts, and poetic compositions by Anna Nelson Harry. The name Eyak itself is not an Eyak word but instead derives from the Chugach Eskimo name (Igya’aq) of the Eyak village site near the mouth of Eyak River (Krauss 2006:199). The Chugach word Igya’aq is a general term referring to ‘the outlet of a lake into a river.’
With the passing of Marie Smith Jones (pictured above with linguist Michael Krauss) on January 21, 2008 Eyak became the first Alaska Native language to become extinct in recent history.

Gwich’in: Gwich’in (Kutchin) is the Athabascan language spoken in the northeastern Alaska villages of Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Circle, and Birch Creek, as well as in a wide adjacent area of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory. The Gwich’in population of Alaska is about 1,100, and of that number about 300 are speakers of the language. Gwich’in has had a written literature since the 1870s, when Episcopalian missionaries began extensive work on the language. A modern writing system was designed in the 1960s by Richard Mueller, and many books, including story collections and linguistic material, have been published by Katherine Peter, Jeff Leer, Lillian Garnett, Kathy Sikorski, and others.

Haida: Haida (Xa’ida) is the language of the southern half of Prince of Wales Island in the villages of Hyadaburg, Kasaan, and Craig, as well as a portion of the city of Ketchikan. About 600 Haida people live in Alaska, and about 15 of the most elderly of those speak the language. Haida is considered a linguistic isolate with no proven genetic relationship to any language family. A modern writing system was developed in 1972.

Han: Hän is the Athabascan language spoken in Alaska at the village of Eagle and in the Yukon Territory at Dawson. Of the total Alaskan Hän population of about 50 people, perhaps 12 speak the language. A writing system was established in the 1970s, and considerable documentation has been carried out at the Alaska Native Language Center as well as at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse.

Holikachuk: Holikachuk is the Athabascan language of the Innoko River, formerly spoken at the village of Holikachuk, which has moved to Grayling on the lower Yukon River. Holikachuk, which is intermediate between Ingalik and Koyukon, was identified as a separate language in the 1970s. The total population is about 200, and of those perhaps 12 speak the language.

Inupiaq:Inupiaq is spoken throughout much of northern Alaska and is closely related to the Canadian Inuit dialects and the Greenlandic dialects, which may collectively be called “Inuit” or Eastern Eskimo, distinct from Yupik or Western Eskimo. Alaskan Inupiaq includes two major dialect groups ? North Alaskan Inupiaq and Seward Peninsula Inupiaq. North Alaskan Inupiaq comprises the North Slope dialect spoken along the Arctic Coast from Barter Island to Kivalina, and the Malimiut dialect found primarily around Kotzebue Sound and the Kobuk River. Seward Peninsula Inupiaq comprises the Qawiaraq dialect found principally in Teller and in the southern Seward Peninsula and Norton Sound area, and the Bering Strait dialect spoken in the villages surrounding Bering Strait and on the Diomede Islands. Dialect differences involve vocabulary and suffixes (lexicon) as well as sounds (phonology). North Slope and Malimiut are easily mutually intelligible, although there are vocabulary differences (tupiq means ?tent? in North Slope and ?house? in Malimiut; iglu is ?house? in North Slope) and sound differences (?dog? is qimmiq in North Slope and qipmiq in Malimiut). Seward Peninsula and North Alaskan dialects differ significantly from each other, and a fair amount of experience is required for a speaker of one to understand the dialect of the other. The name “Inupiaq,” meaning “real or genuine person” (inuk ?person? plus -piaq ?real, genuine?), is often spelled “Iñupiaq,” particularly in the northern dialects. It can refer to a person of this group (“He is an Inupiaq”) and can also be used as an adjective (“She is an Inupiaq woman”). The plural form of the noun is “Inupiat,” referring to the people collectively (“the Inupiat of the North Slope”). Alaska is home to about 13,500 Inupiat, of whom about 3,000, mostly over age 40, speak the language. The Canadian Inuit population of 31,000 includes about 24,000 speakers. In Greenland, a population of 46,400 includes 46,000 speakers.

Koyukon: Koyukon occupies the largest territory of any Alaskan Athabascan language. It is spoken in three dialects – Upper, Central, and Lower – in 11 villages along the Koyukuk and middle Yukon rivers. The total current population is about 2,300, of whom about 300 speak the language. The Jesuit Catholic missionary Jules Jette did extensive work on the language from 1899-1927. Since the early 1970s, native Koyukon speaker Eliza Jones has produced much linguistic material for use in schools and by the general public.

Siberian Yupik / St. Lawrence Island Yupik: Siberian Yupik (also St. Lawrence Island Yupik) is spoken in the two St. Lawrence Island villages of Gambell and Savoonga. The language of St. Lawrence Island is nearly identical to the language spoken across the Bering Strait on the tip of the Siberian Chukchi Peninsula. The total Siberian Yupik population in Alaska is about 1,100, and of that number about 1,050 speak the language. Children in both Gambell and Savoonga still learn Siberian Yupik as the first language of the home. Of a population of about 900 Siberian Yupik people in Siberia, there are about 300 speakers, although no children learn it as their first language. Although much linguistic and pedagogical work had been published in Cyrillic on the Siberian side, very little was written for St. Lawrence Island until the 1960s when linguists devised a modern orthography. Researchers at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks revised that orthography in 1971, and since then a wide variety of curriculum materials, including a preliminary dictionary and a practical grammar, have become available for the schools. Siberian Yupik is a distinct language from Central Alaskan Yup’ik. Notice that the former is spelled without an apostrophe.

(Lower) Tanana: Tanana Athabascan is now spoken only at Nenana and Minto on the Tanana River below Fairbanks. The Athabascan population of those two villages is about 380, of whom about 30, the youngest approaching age 60, speak the language. Michael Krauss did the first major linguistic fieldwork on this language beginning in 1961, and this was continued by James Kari. Recent publications in the language include the 1992 edition of stories told by Teddy Charlie as recorded by Krauss in 1961, and a preliminary dictionary compiled by Kari in 1994.

Tanacross Athabascan: Tanacross is the ancestral language of the Mansfield-Ketchumstock and Healy Lake-Jospeph Village bands. It is spoken today at Healy Lake, Dot Lake, and Tanacross on the middle Tanana River. The total population is about 220, of whom about 65 speak the language. A practical alphabet was established in 1973 and a few booklets have been published at the Alaska Native Language Center, but Tanacross remains one of the least documented of Alaska Native languages.

(Upper) Tanana: Upper Tanana Athabascan is spoken mainly in the Alaska villages of Northway, Tetlin, and Tok, but has a small population also across the border in Canada. The Alaskan population is about 300, of whom perhaps 105 speak the language. During the 1960s, Paul Milanowski established a writing system, and he worked with Alfred John to produce several booklets and a school dictionary for use in bilingual programs.

Tlingit: Tlingit (Łingít) is the language of coastal Southeastern Alaska from Yakutat south to Ketchikan. The total Tlingit population in Alaska is about 10,000 in 16 communities with about 500 speakers of the language. Tlingit is one branch of the Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit language family. A practical writing system was developed in the 1960s, and linguists such as Constance Naish, Gillian Story, Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, and Jeff Leer have documented the language through a number of publications, including a verb dictionary, a noun dictionary, and a collection of ancient legends and traditional stories by Tlingit elder Elizabeth Nyman.

Tsimshian: Tsimshian has been spoken at Metlakatla on Annette Island in the far southeastern corner of Alaska since the people moved there from Canada in 1887 under the leadership of missionary William Duncan. Currently, of the 1,300 Tsimshian people living in Alaska, not more than 70 of the most elderly speak the language. Franz Boas did extensive research on the language in the early 1900s, and in 1977 the Metlakatlans adopted a standard practical orthography for use also by the Canadian Coast Tsimshians.

Tunuu: although the early Russian fur trade was exploitative and detrimental to the Aleut population as a whole, linguists working through the Russian Orthodox Church made great advances in literacy and helped foster a society that grew to be remarkably bilingual in Russian and Unangax^. The greatest of these Russian Orthodox linguists was Ivan Veniaminov who, beginning in 1824, worked with Aleut speakers to develop a writing system and translate religious and educational material into the native language. In modern times the outstanding academic contributor to Unangax^ linguistics is Knut Bergsland who from 1950 until his death in 1998 worked with Unangax^ speakers such as William Dirks Sr. and Moses Dirks – now himself a leading Unangax^ linguist – to design a modern writing system for the language and develop bilingual curriculum materials including school dictionaries for both dialects. In 1994 Bergsland produced a comprehensive Unangax^ dictionary, and in 1997 a detailed reference grammar.

Upper Kuskokwim: Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan is spoken in the villages of Nikolai, Telida, and McGrath in the Upper Kuskokwim River drainage. Of a total population of about 160 people, about 40 still speak the language. Raymond Collins began linguistic work at Nikolai in 1964, when he established a practical orthography. Since then he has worked with Betty Petruska to produce many small booklets and a school dictionary for use in the bilingual program.

I have to compare this list of languages with the one provided by Ethnologue, but in case of non-coincidence I think that the ANLC is more reliable, as they work shoulder to shoulder with them.

Alaska Native Language Center

March 31, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Posted in Alaska, Language, Research | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As I told you in another post, I’m a linguist, a philologist to be accurate. So one of the main guidelines of my trip will be the study languages, probably. I suppose it is impossible not to be a bit influenced by that, and it is usually an interesting approach when traveling, as it offers a way of approaching people on the way. So, when on my last post I found out about language research concerning Arctic languages I decided to follow the thread. And it leads to Alaska Native Language Center:

Alaska Native Language Center

Mission and Goal

The Alaska Native Language Center was established by state legislation in 1972 as a center for research and documentation of the twenty Native languages of Alaska. It is internationally known and recognized as the major center in the United States for the study of Eskimo and Northern Athabascan languages. ANLC publishes its research in story collections, dictionaries, grammars, and research papers. The center houses an archival collection of more than 10,000 items, virtually everything written in or about Alaska Native languages, including copies of most of the earliest linguistic documentation, along with significant collections about related languages outside Alaska. Staff members provide materials for bilingual teachers and other language workers throughout the state, assist social scientists and others who work with Native languages, and provide consulting and training services to teachers, school districts, and state agencies involved in bilingual education. The ANLC staff also participates in teaching through the Alaska Native Language Program which offers major and minor degrees in Central Yup’ik and Inupiaq Eskimo at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. An AAS degree or a Certificate in Native Language Education is also available. The center continues to strive to raise public awareness of the gravity of language loss worldwide but particularly in the North. Of the state’s twenty Native languages, only two (Siberian Yupik in two villages on St. Lawrence Island, and Central Yup’ik in seventeen villages in southwestern Alaska) are spoken by children as the first language of the home. Like every language in the world, each of those twenty is of inestimable human value and is worthy of preservation. ANLC, therefore, continues to document, cultivate, and promote those languages as much as possible and thus contribute to their future and to the heritage of all Alaskans.

Alaska Native Languages


Aleut | Alutiiq | Iñupiaq | Central Yup’ik | Siberian Yupik | Tsimshian | Haida | lingit | Eyak | Ahtna | Dena’ina | Deg Hit’an | Holikachuk | Upper Kuskokwim | Koyukon | Tanana | Tanacross | Upper Tanana | Gwich’in | Hän

Classes and Degree Programs

There are 20 different Alaska Native languages: Aleut, Alutiiq (also called Aleut or Sugpiaq), Central Yup’ik Eskimo, St. Lawrence Island Eskimo, Inupiaq Eskimo, Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit and Eyak and 11 Athabascan languages. These languages are becoming recognized as the priceless heritage they truly are.

Since the passage of the Alaska Bilingual Education Law in 1972 there has been a demand for teachers who can speak and teach these languages in the schools throughout the state where there are Native children. Professional opportunities for those skilled in these languages exist in teaching, research and cultural, educational and political development.

Central Yup’ik Eskimo is spoken by the largest number of people, and Inupiaq by the next largest. In these two languages major and minor curricula are now offered. Courses are also regularly offered in Kutchin (Gwich’in) Athabascan. For work in all other languages, individual or small-group instruction is offered under special topics. Thus there have frequently been instruction, seminars, and workshops also in Tlingit, Haida, St. Lawrence Island Eskimo, Aleut and Koyukon, comparative Eskimo and comparative Athabascan.

UAF is unique in offering this curriculum, which benefits also from the research staff and library of the Alaska Native Language Center.

Degree Programs Offered: Minor in Alaska Native Languages, B.A. or Minor in Iñupiaq or Yup’ik Eskimo, A.A.S. or Certificate in Native Language Education, M.A. in Applied Linguistics.

You can also check out their staff and publications. They also have an interesting “Resources” page, I will deal with it later.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.