Securing Sovereignty, Ensuring Sustainability: The Importance of Our Languages


Opinion — 

I was in Wainwright once with a colleague for work; he was non-Native and it was his first trip to Wainwright, the North Slope and rural Alaska. He had learned about the extraordinary work it historically took to live up here, how far our elders and ancestors would walk to hunt or haul water or any of the aspects of daily life that to us now, are grueling and something, at that scale, we now are largely incapable of doing.

He said something like “And now it seems like people just sit in their houses with their heaters on.” He sounded sad, like it was a shame. One great way of life giving way to another, seemingly better yet also unequal. It bothered me at the time and for a while after for some unknown reason. Maybe because part of me recognized that yes, the past is the past and we can only go forward. Not “walking in two worlds,” but like the Britney Spears song, “not a girl, not yet a woman.” The in-between phase where we are holding on to the past in one hand, because that’s where we know our indigenousness to come from, but also being fully-functioning, full-fledged members of the world, just like anybody else.

It is moments like this when I think about the Japanese. They have a long history, like us, but nobody expects them all to be how they were 1000 years ago when the Samurai were popular, like how people expect American Indians to be as they were in the 1800’s.

Nobody tells the Japanese that they need to revert to the Samurai ways of 1000 years ago when they are leading the word in technology and advancements. They are the essence of modernity and the future — and yet, everything they do is the very essence of being Japanese. They have a culture of taking every influence and making it distinctly their own. They are modern and still Japanese.

The enemy isn’t the Western world. The enemy isn’t modernity. The enemy is the refusal to protect the timeless aspects that make Alaska Natives, Alaska Native; the aspects that aren’t tied to any tool or technology, or any one point in time. The aspects like our authentic values, and not in the way our corporations and companies market them, but in that real way that touches you inside, and tells you our people really are on to something. That real way that after being so frustrated at this aspect or that, makes you love our people once again.

When I’m working with the language, one of the reasons I care is because I care about our sovereignty and the protection of our rights.

If you meet a person who looks like you, eats like you, dresses like you and works like you, but that person gets benefits or special treatment, you are going to wonder why. Such is the sentiment many American Indians and Alaska Natives do face. What will this look like in 40 years or more, when we are additionally assimilated? What will Americans think about our sovereignty then, and our rights? And what defense then will we, as elders, have to defend it?

But if you meet a person who looks like you, eats like you, dresses like you, works like you and yet speaks a different language…you are going to assume there are also 1000 other things that you just can’t see, which make you different as well. Different languages signify that your deep culture is going to be different, even if you look the same. .

If we retain our language, we can sail into progress and the future, with no reservations, and still always be Iñupiaq, or Yupik or Athabaskan, or Alutiiq, whatever that might look like in the future. Whatever other influences, whatever our housing looks like and what our villages will become, and the food we eat or don’t eat, or how we will dress — language provides an incubation for a culture to continue to grow and evolve in modern and future times. Learning our languages isn’t the burden; thriving Alaska Native languages are one key to securing our future freedoms.

Without the continuation of language, there is a good chance we will forever be tied to the past, that time of contact, when we were last sure of what it meant to be indigenous. Without the continuation of our language, like so many people do now, we will always be stunted in our progress and development, and always left to wonder.

Do you have thoughts about “walking in two worlds,” or what it means to be Alaska Native in modern times? Email Nalliq at and tell us about it!

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