Conversations with Tim: The essential work of revitalizing and preserving the Yugtun language

November 29, 2023

In this edition of Conversations with Tim, Tim is joined by Rosalie Lincoln and Cathy Moses. Both Rosalie and Cathy have spent their careers as Yup’ik teachers in Alaska. Most recently, they’ve been a part of the Yup’ik Expert Group and have worked on an assessment for the Yugtun language in the southwestern region of Alaska. They join Tim and Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to discuss their backgrounds, work and hopes for the future of the revitalization of the Yugtun language.  

Read the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Listen to Rosalie and Cathy introduce themselves the way Yup’ik people traditionally do:  

As you read this edition of Conversations with Tim, look for these top takeaways:

  • Every language is unique and comes with its own cultural context. That cultural context can and should be woven into assessments of the language. One way the Yup’ik assessment did this was by including hand gestures. 
  • What are creative and fun ways to connect communities with language? Rosalie and Cathy offer several examples of how they’ve tried to make it a fun and interesting experience.
  • It’s important to listen to the students. They have valuable feedback and ideas to offer, as Cathy and Rosalie demonstrate.  

Tim Boals: Here we are with another Conversations with Tim, and I'll say it's both afternoon, and it's morning in Alaska, because we're talking with Rosalie Lincoln and Cathy Moses from the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Alaska. And I'm very excited to welcome them. And I’ll hand it over to them to have each of them introduce themselves and tell you a little bit about their background.

Rosalie Lincoln: First, I am going to introduce myself the way Yup’ik people traditionally do.

Kituuciqa ciumek qanrutekqataraqa yugtun piyaramcetun nutem. Aatairutma Nurataam Qaluyaarmiunguluni aanairutma-llu Cupugniralriim Caputnguarmiunguluni yukaagnga. Angakayagaugua atma-llu aipaa Qaivaralria. Nunakauyarmiunguunga.

I am a child of my late father, Phillip Moses of Nelson Island and my late mother, Maria Moses from Chefornak. My name is Qaivaralria Rosalie Lincoln of Toksook Bay.

Tim: Thank you, Rosalie, and welcome to Conversations with Tim.

Cathy Moses: Angayuqairutegka Yugtun Yugissaullruuq Igvaq-wa. Aatallemkun apaurluirutka Apaullruuq, maurluirutka-llu Maassaluullruluni. Aanallemkun apaurluirutka Angukaraullruuq, maurluirutka-llu Nanirquksuaraullruluni. Yugtun atqa Keggutailnguuguq.

My parents were Pauline Kameroff-Prince-Hunt and Frederick Prince. My mother was born and raised in Kotlik, Alaska, and my father was in a reindeer camp. My maternal grandparents were Theresa and Stepka Kameroff. My fraternal grandparents were Pauline and Charlie Prince. My English name is Catherine Moses.

A little bit about my background and experience teaching Yugtun. After I got my bachelor’s degree at University of Alaska Fairbanks, I went back to Toksook Bay and started working as a teacher aide at the Head Start program for two and a half years, and then, as a teacher director for another two and a half years. I then taught as a teacher aide in Toksook Bay Elementary School. The career ladder program that Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) offered made it possible for me to go back to UAF to earn my teaching certificate. I then taught as a certified teacher in our region as a Yup’ik teacher, mainly in the third-grade classrooms. The district is located in the southwestern region of Alaska.

Rosalie: My first career experience as a teacher aide started in August 1974 at my hometown. Elementary school for kindergarten through sixth grade was run by BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, from 1974 to 1985. I was mainly placed in first and second grade as the bilingual teacher. I later transferred to Lower Kuskokwim School District as an associate Yup’ik teacher. I taught a high school Yup’ik class for two years then I moved back to the first-grade classroom as a bilingual teacher after receiving my teaching certificate where I taught as a dual language Yup’ik teacher until I retired in 2015.

Tim: It's so nice to hear about your background and the experiences that you have, because I know that those are an important part of who you are and what you bring to this discussion. Thank you, Rosalie and Cathy, and thank you again for being with us.

Let’s start by you telling us about the Yup’ik Expert Group that you’re a part of. Could you explain the group's mission and goals to us in relation to preserving and revitalizing the Yugtun language?

Cathy: The Yup’ik Expert Group (YPQC) does not really have a mission statement per se. But we can say the outcome of YPQC is to keep our culture and language strong by maintaining the language as much as possible. In this way, we preserve, revitalize, or maintain the language and culture to keep it vibrant and alive. We want to support and move forward the bilingual, biliterate, and multicultural part of the district mission statement. And to do that, the YPQC tests include unique yet important aspects of our culture, like the cultural awareness and listening test that connects to our identity and culture.

Rosalie: For me, the really interesting features that I think are important for students and teachers are the cultural and traditional values that go in. Test content is all about our culture and language. They are also very, very relevant to our Yup’ik students in this region.

Cathy: And I'll add to that. For me, an interesting feature of the grades 7 through 12 test is the cultural awareness one. Because it is a unique form. Our language and culture define who we are and where we come from. I would like the outcomes to lead to a curriculum that includes Yugtun teachings like Yup’ik sayings. I heard one elder say that these sayings are foundations for true living. Life is hard any way you look at it, and teachings from our ancestors help to shape our thoughts and behaviors in ways that will help us and eventually the people around us.

One student whom I was doing a pilot test on made this remark, “I wish we had done this test a long time ago.”

Tim: That's very interesting, Cathy. Can you share some strategies or resources that have been particularly effective in keeping the younger generation interested and connected to the Yugtun language and culture?

Cathy: One resource I can think of is the Home Link program that Rosalie and I were involved in. We started that last year through a grant with LKSD. We had to come up with activities that parents can do at home. One activity we came up with was on the topic of Yugtun kinship terms. We have many of them and our kinship terms can be complex. The parents and the child had to play a game. First, we had to list all the kinship terms and then we ordered white balls that we could write on. On each side we had family terms, such as, father, mother, baby, the name for brother or sister, the way we say them in Yugtun. In the game the parent would throw the ball to the child, and wherever his or her thumb was touching, they were to a mention that family term and perhaps say a complete sentence to go with it.

Rosalie: Another thing was what we called a berry bucket and in it we had a recipe for frybreads, and we also had put in Yup’ik books. Cathy and I have developed and created Yup’ik children’s books. And in those books, we’ve had cultural activities. She's written out a throwing party. Those parties are held outside our house. The elders must be inside the semi-circle, and the younger you are, the more you are on the outside.

Cathy: And a little bit more about the buckets. In the buckets were questions that parents shared with their child. And most of them had to do with the environment, like, what do you see out there? To get them talking. Even what kind of berries are outside. We thought that it turned out very well. And, of course, berry buckets are always needed whenever there's berry picking.  

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And in what month typically would berry picking happen in your area?

Cathy: It used to be mostly in August, but with climate change now people start going in July. It can go from July to September. September is when the blackberries are ready to be picked.  

The other activity where students learn their language is during Yup’ik dancing time, and our village invites other nearby villages for this event. And during that time, they have what they call first dancers, and those first dancers are introduced to everyone who's there by their name and an important thing that happened to them. It could be their first-time berry picking, or the first time they caught a seal or caught birds. They pass out gifts in honor of that namesake to the visitors. During the three days, between dance groups or intermissions, elders explain important Yup’ik sayings or teachings as they recount their experiences or add to the message given. That’s one way we share them with others. We have many values and one of the important values is respect for yourself, for others and for the land.  

And another activity we thought of where the younger generation uses Yup’ik is when they go hunting or fishing. And a lot of words, or even teachings, come from that experience. Each time the family takes that young person out they try to tell them about survival skills, for instance, and ways to tell the weather.

Tim: If I remember correctly, there were some hand signals included in the assessment that are very important that relate to some of those the hunting and fishing activities. Am I right in remembering that?

Cathy: Yes, you are right. In fact, that was the first thing we were talking about, at least when I got in. I thought they were very important.

Tim: I think a very important aspect of this assessment is that it has truly been developed by all of you. We at WIDA have only been present to advise on the practices of good assessment making. But we really wanted this to be your assessment and developed by you. I recall Rosalie Grant, who has worked with you so much on this, telling me about how there were important cultural items that were included in the assessment, some of which involved hand gestures. And I just think that's a very unique thing. It may be one of the few language proficiency tests that are out there that have hand gestures included in the assessment.

Cathy: Yes, it’s exciting. It was pretty interesting when we got down to the kindergarten level, we had to think about their developmental level. And it turned out to be mostly facial gestures. Like in Yugtun we often raise our eyebrows to mean “yes.” A new teacher that comes may not know that and will ask the students questions. The kids will raise their eyebrows. But he or she wouldn't get it until later.

Tim: That's a great example of the role of cultural context in understanding deeply about a culture and a language and the people that identify with that culture and language. I would love for both of you to share what your hopes and aspirations are for the future of Yugtun language revitalization and development.

Rosalie: Our Yugtun language was never written, just an oral language. Our elders would listen and remember. One of the elders told me that he could listen to a story, whether it be long [or not], and he will just envision it like a movie. And he’d be able to tell that story again.  

Tim: And it's amazing how they were capable of remembering great details that seem hard to us today.  

Rosalie: And also, those stories have chants and songs in them. The characters are communicating with others. And when you tell those stories you use those chants, and you use those songs. And they also contain old vocabulary words that these younger generations don't even know. We've lost those authentic vocabulary words.

Tim: Well, I truly hope that some of those important words and phrases can be recovered in your revitalization efforts. That's an exciting part of the mission that I think you spoke of earlier that is truly the revitalization of the Yugtun language. Yes, Cathy, would you like to jump in here?

Cathy: Actually, we'd like to read some of the highlights of when we did our pilot testing. We had students respond or make comments about what went well, what was difficult for them and just basic comments.  

Rosalie: I have this one right here that says, “the test was great, and I’m so happy to listen to Yup’ik. I am so happy to learn more Yup’ik language. I thank you guys for testing my classmates and I, and maybe because it will help us learn more Yup’ik language. I would like to test again. Maybe when you guys come again. It is my language and culture.”

Another student said, “I have never taken a test like this before. I recommend this because it will help us learn more Yup’ik.”  

Another just reads, “I don’t know Yup’ik.” That’s a reminder that young people are losing their language in some places.  

Cathy: It reminds me of one student that I was testing. He seemed very uncomfortable. He would smile, though. He would make comments like, I wish I had more Yugtun in me. And another time he made the comment, “I feel like a bad native for not being able to speak the language.”  

Later I found out that as a child, he grew up in the village, but as he was growing up they had moved to another town where Yugtun wasn’t spoken a lot there, and he had gone back to the village as a high school student. And he wished he knew the language and he really wished he could respond. And I understood. Knowing that he wanted to speak like the rest of the students, that must have been very hard for him.  

Tim: It illustrates so clearly the importance of the language and students feeling good about themselves and their identity. Thank you for sharing that story. What message would you like to convey to the wider community about the importance of preserving and promoting indigenous languages? I think the story that you just told helps set the stage for that message, really, but anything you'd like to add about the importance of the Yugtun language to the Yup’ik people?

Cathy: I would like to say that we need to come together and come up with ways where students or younger generations see the value of keeping our language and culture alive. In our language, there are different dialects out there, but we need to instill pride or appreciation for those different dialects, and some are unique. So instilling respect for others, and their dialects has to be part of the curriculum.

Also, like I mentioned, I taught a few Yup’ik classes to both adults and high school students online. and I found that many Yup'ik descendants wished they had learned the language early on. Some have an inner desire to pass on the language to their own children. Over the last 10 years, I heard the description that Yup’ik is an emotional language.

One example is that we have many words to describe our emotional state. Some adults who speak the language well end up being emotional themselves as they wish our young people could speak it.

Another description I heard about Yup’ik is that it is a loving language. For example, we have words such as maurlurlug, meaning poor grandmother and apaurlurlug, meaning poor grandfather, and we often hear the expression nakleng, meaning poor when hearing about unfortunate happenings to others, or sometimes it can also mean I'm sorry. But that same word can also be used for young adults who previously were given advice in Yup’ik, but did not follow through. Maybe they were told over and over about that advice, and knowing this, the adult may say nakleng elpet, meaning poor you. The bigger message is that the person did not fully understand the advice given.

Tim: Well, I just think that the work that you do is so important. And we're just so very excited today that you were able to share this afternoon with us. Is there anything else that either of you would like to add today?  

Cathy: Just that we hope this will continue, and we hope the test will lead to other curriculums that include, like the non-verbal stuff. Those aren't really in the classrooms. One time in sociology class, I heard that you really don't know your culture, unless you study another culture. And that's when you can make comparisons between their culture and your culture.

Tim: Yes, I agree with that. Let me close by saying that I hope that the work that we've been able to do with all of you in Alaska can also benefit other tribal groups as they are thinking about their language restoration, and perhaps contemplating having an assessment in their own language to help them measure the progress they're making towards preserving and revitalizing their language. I do think that is of the utmost importance. Cathy and Rosalie, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been an honor and a privilege to speak with you today.

Cathy: It was a privilege for us to be here, too.


Share this story      

teacher posing in hallway

Nominate an Educator

WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly feature article that highlights classroom, district, or state-level educators who are making a difference in the lives of multilingual learners. Nominate an outstanding colleague today!

Submit a Nomination