The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

All Issues
JUNE 2018 Issue

Alaska Language Odyssey



Sing to me of Alaska, O Muse! Sing of treasured languages,

Heard only by the Ancients! Sing of languages rising,

Ever to be heard!


Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik,

Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk,

Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana,

Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak,

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian!


Hear Tlingit! Here Juneau!

Nora Marks Dauenhauer! X̱’unei Lance Twitchell!

Speaking/recording poems and stories that never end.

Nora in her 90’s speaking Tlingit– essence poetry!

Lance, in his 30’s with 3 children under the age of 6,

Studies for Linguistics PhD in Hawai’i --

His kids will learn Tlingit in a school he will create

Like the Pūnana Leo that Larry Kimura, Kauanoe Kamana,

And Pila Wilson and others started in Hilo!


Hear Juneau story of linguist Alice Taff

Teaching language as identity is health.

If you don’t know who you are

You wander a lost landscape,

Try to find yourself in alcohol and addiction.

Speaking your Mother Tongue, you know who you are.


Sing, Juneau! Woosh Kinaadeiyi poetry slam!

Reading with Nora at Christy NaMee Ericksen’s Kindred Post

Juneau, glacier clutching mountains, Tlingit is rising!


Hear Iñupiaq! Here in Kotzebue!

Obama is my advance man, his visit just two weeks ago.

Tim Aqukkasuk Argestsinger, NANA language activist says,

“What use is your language being ‘official’ if it’s dying?”

Here where tundra meets sea, a hundred miles from Russia,

A poetry workshop at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center,

With three Elders and the poems of Joan Naviyuk Kane


Barrow, northernmost point of US!

Snowstorms sweep in September!

I arrive on first day of whaling season. Auspicious!

Three bowheads are brought in, maximum daily catch,

Will feed three extended families through the entire winter.

On the beach, the animals are treated with respect, Iñupiaq spoken,

Passed from one generation to the next, as life itself

Is carried on. Or you can pay $20 for a 5lb bag of potatoes.

Language Matters is screened at the town’s living room,

Tuzzy Public Library, David Ongley, Culture Warrior, Director.


Here, Fairbanks! The story: Allan Hayton,

Speaking to me in Gwich’in because he must speak

Aloud to keep the sounds alive in his ears.

Let’s go to Immersion Class, he says one day.

So we visit a woman and her two children.

Allen sets a timer for an hour.

For an hour the children hear Gwich’in only

Smiling in the language of who they are

Ready for a chapter in Leanne Hinton’s Bringing

Our Languages Home (Heyday, 2013).


Allan Hayton (right) teaching a Gwich’in language immersion class. This is the first time that his student (Aurora Lee, left, ten months old) has heard her Mother Tongue.


Fairbanks! Moose stew and caribou meat!

Singing church hymns in Gwich’in

Yeendoo ji’ dhandaii danh

Zhik gwįįzhrįį nihtat ts’at tiidadaa.

(In the sweet by and by

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.)


Fairbanks! The university linguists are the people’s linguists!

Hear the story of Larry Kaplan, Gary Holton, Siri Tuttle, all

Who see the continuation of Alaskan languages

Not as part of their job, but as the job itself!


Hear the Poetry Slam, multi-culti, futuristic! Hail Effie Kokrine Charter School!

And here the story of poetry workshop at Fairbanks Youth Facility,

Poems blaze freedom for these young men, poems as salvation,

Hip hop bravado next to a poem of silence

And waiting while on a bear hunt. Where is my language? ask the young poets.

The language is silent and waiting. Poetry holds a place.


And here in the wilds,

Hear the story of tiny prop plane dropping me off in Arctic Village,

Where I sleep on Gwich’in Immersion Classroom floor,

The lights on a motion sensor

A blast of light every time I roll over

Waking me in a room of ghosts.


Hear the tale of the new Caribou Fence, complete with website! and video!

The project brings work to this village of 400

Brings history alive recreating ancient hunting method:

Funnel of felled trees direct caribou to hunters waiting with spears.

Gwich’in words for caribou, for caribou fence, for strings-


Bro, in his marijuana watch cap, rifle slung across his back,

Shows up near sunset -- he’ll take me to caribou fence for gas money.

I climb behind him on his muddy four-wheeler.

I’ve been told the fence is just a short way out of town,

But we make our way into the wilderness, pine trees dotting

Frozen landscape, crunching ‘cross ice creeks, half-frozen lakes,

Snow drifting silence and solitude, true Alaska and still traveling 45 minutes later

I worry about getting back in time to show the movie, sun lowering,

Cold draping my body. We reach a hill where under snow the trail

Is solid ice. The 4-wheeler slides, I get off, we must walk. No,

I say, we must return, the Caribou Fence will be a mirage of history.

I freeze on the long return, when Bro, nearing the village,

Rifle bumping against my chest, turns and shouts,

“Do you want to have your photo taken?” I laugh. He seems the last guy,

This the last place, to suggest a photo opportunity. “Sure.”

And –what?! There it is, just off the trail, just out of town -- the Caribou Fence!

The one Allan told me about, a living recreation of the past.

“But this is it!” I shout, “What I wanted to see! the Caribou Fence itself!”

“Oh,” Bro shrugs, “thought you meant the Old Caribou Fence.”


Hear the story of the $25 door prize. 15 people have a chance at the prize,

Arctic Village premier of Language Matters. People ask questions. I press

Spacebar, stop film to discuss Last Speaker of Amardak in Australia, say.

We all have popcorn. Sarah James, Gwich’in spokesperson, so eloquent

On home turf. Again fitfully I sleep in Gwich’in classroom

Harsh motion detector Morse code light, SOS SOS.


Hear Fort Yukon radio station story

DJ Vera Englishoe loves to speak her Gwich’in

But only does so because I ask her to.


Now, Homer, the town! I become poet here! Give readings, show new poem-film,

Khonsay: Poem of Many Tongues, 50 languages in 15 minutes,

Hail! Bunnell Street Gallery! I read poems as whales breach out window.

Visit Nikolaevsk, Old Russian Village, another language in Alaska’s crown!


Hear Eyak! Tales of Anna Nelson Harry

Lovingly recorded/translated by linguist Michael Krauss,

Now all that’s left. Last Speaker died 2008, but no one told the Legislature,

So Eyak is still an official Alaskan language, even though no one speaks it.

Not true! A French teenager is learning -- hears Eyak in his dreams,

Like Jesse little doe Baird, reviving Wampanoag in Cape Cod,

A language unspoken spoken for a hundred years


Now Kodiak Island, site of Alutiiq Museum!

Sugpiag, an Alutiiq nation, speaking that tongue!

Today mixed in with Tagalog-speaking Filipino population, some

Ilocano as well, some Thai. The fishing industry and brand-new brewery!

Poetry and language feted in the Library! Here’s to April Councellar

And Michael Bach at the Museum! To Katie Baxter at the Library!

The grand mix of Kodiak!


And here’s the story of City of Anchorage, Alaskan Federation

Of Natives Convention, thousands of Alaskans celebrating native

Heritage and languages. The power of these peoples inherent, inside the dances

Smiles of greetings cross cultures of the state.

Mutual support for struggle of identity, culture, language.


In 2003 Alaska voted to have an Official Language: English.

It took eleven years for legislature to add twenty more, the indigenous languages

That have been here “forever” (“Ch'a tlákwdáx si. áat, tlél ch'as yá táakw”).

Bill passed, April 2014, but a cynical government waited for AFN Convention

To sign it, so Governor gets publicity bump.

And of course, no money to support language continuity.

So it is done -- without money nor support of any government.

And it was here -- not uncommon at AFN -- someone jumped

Off roof of Convention Center into a future without language.


In Anchorage, walk Tidal Trail with Joan Naviyuk Kane,

Hearing her story, years working for an actual trip to Ugiuvak (King Island),

With helicopters and boats and a crew of shared-vision women:

In dreams begin responsibilities.


Here, Alaska, country of languages!

Language Revolution Future where the horrors of the past

Are made right with simple respect for Mother Tongues’

Knowledge, Identity, Wisdom. Lives (and money) saved

By reviving languages! Identity pays that bottom line!

Here, Alaska waits, poised to be Center of Global Language Revolution!



Bob Holman

Bob Holman is an American poet and poetry activist, most closely identified with the oral tradition, the spoken word, and poetry slam.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

All Issues