From Alaska to Aotearoa: a language revitalisation mission

Issue: Volume 95, Number 8

Posted: 9 May 2016
Reference #: 1H9d1u

More than half the population of Igiugig visited New Zealand recently to learn about the revitalisation of te reo Māori, writes Tania Black.

The total population of Igiugig is 69, primarily Yup’ik Eskimos, Aleuts and Athabascans, and after fundraising for nearly two years, 41 spent Christmas and New Year in New Zealand.

The group included school students, teachers, village council members, parents, grandparents and even babies!

The purpose of the visit was to learn about the revitalisation of te reo, specifically how to replicate its success to restore the Yup’ik language in Igiugig (pronounced: ig-ee-ah-gig).

Yup’ik was once the common language of Igiugig but is now only spoken by the eldest residents. It is estimated there are only 23 fluent speakers of the distinct Lake Iliamna dialect of the Yup’ik language and of those, four live in Igiugig.

Igiugig recently launched a Yup’ik Immersion Programme with the help of a Language Preservation and Maintenance Grant from the US Administration for Native Americans, one of only 12 grantees selected nationwide. The grant will be implemented over three years and five villagers have been appointed to lead the revitalisation by learning the Lake Iliamna dialect of the Yup’ik language. They will then teach the younger generations to create new speakers of the language.

One of the five ‘language apprentices’ is 22 year old Alicia (left). Alicia currently babysits and works at the post office, so she says learning and teaching Yup’ik will be challenging but she is looking forward to it.

Education in Igiugig

Education is very important and the village set up the Dan Salmon Education Fund in honour of Daniel R Salmon, former tribal administrator and stalwart supporter of education for 22 years. Three of Dan’s daughters were in New Zealand carrying on his education legacy.

The visitors liked the flexibility in The New Zealand Curriculum, which contrasts with the structured methods currently in place in the US. They also gained a lot from their visit in terms of Māori culture and language, particularly how it is seamlessly immersed in the schools they visited: TKKM Pukemiro in Kaitaia and Haumoana School in Hawke’s Bay. Tate, head teacher secondary, received a copy of Ka Hikitia and other Ministry resources that might help them with their language revitalisation programme.

In 2006/07, Igiugig School led the state in academic yearly progress scores and it is currently a 5-star school, one of only a dozen in Alaska. It has 19 students and the school is highly ranked every year. However, the state is currently talking about cutting funding for schools with less than 25 students. This would close most native and small rural schools which would be disastrous for Igiugig.

This would include job losses, as many of the visiting parents are also teachers including Tate, his wife AJ (elementary) and his mother Deanne is an ex-teacher. Deanne first went to Alaska in 1964, and at Matahiwi Marae in Hawke’s Bay met a woman from New Zealand who had visited Alaska in the same year. She said it was poignant connecting with each other in New Zealand, after 51 years.

New Zealand Schools and Matahiwi Marae offer true kiwi experiences

The visitors were first hosted by Mike Murray, principal of TKKM Pukemiro in Kaitaia. Mike showed them around his school, which the visitors could not believe; they had never quite seen such a ‘state-of-the-art modern school’. They loved the way the doors opened up to the outside and the large open plan spaces but said they would never work in Igiugig because it would be too cold!

Renée Grounds, grants administrator for the Council, was impressed with Mike’s philosophy that the school doesn’t teach Māori, they just teach in Māori and Māori culture is inherent. This is a philosophy she said they were keen to replicate in Igiugig.

Mike led the group in an inspirational workshop to help them articulate their reasons behind starting culturally focused education in Igiugig.

His clear message to “just start doing it” was taken to heart and the teachers have already begun implementing a cultural curriculum in Igiugig.

Keeping the momentum from the visit with New Zealand schools, the community has started Yup’ik language immersion classes on a daily basis in the school. The children are quick learners and more Yup’ik is being used now in the village than has been for many years.

From Kaitaia, the group drove down the island arriving in Hawke’s Bay on 2 January, where Haumoana principal Jane Gallen and many of her staff, plus kaumātua Tom Mulligan and representatives of Matahiwi Marae welcomed the group onto the marae with a pōwhiri.

Tom explained the history of Matahiwi and Terek responded on behalf of the manuhiri. Lorin, 21 years old and with a beautiful voice, led the guests in song. Later that night, the cultural exchange continued as the visitors showcased their traditional songs and dance, followed by their New Zealand hosts.

The visitors’ first song was about noseeums (flying insects that are much smaller than mosquitos so you don’t see them coming and they have a nasty bite that lasts much longer). The words translated to I’m walking but they’re following me; they’re biting and starting to itch. Noseeums are a problem in Igiugig but some of the children are used to them and are practically immune now – unfortunately not the case for the adults!

The men’s drums used to be made out of the stomach lining of walruses but are now made out of synthetic material (that can be painted).

The string around the drums used to be moose hide but now they paint it and it tightens when it’s been painted. The boys used dance fans made from bird feathers; the girls’ dance fans were either wolf fur or caribou – the white hair from underneath the neck.

The hosts sang Tutira mai ngā iwi and followed this with a traditional lullaby. A highlight for visitors was two haka performances: the first about a father talking to his son, led by Tawhirirangi Kiripatea, a pupil at Haumoana School.

The manuhiri stayed overnight in the marae and reflected on their favourite aspects of the visit, which included the marae stay, the haka and New Zealand’s scenery.

On 3 January at Haumoana School, the group watched a hangi go into the ground, returning later to see it brought out again before enjoying it together at the marae.

Jane took the visitors on a tour of Haumoana School, where they discussed curriculums and their various programmes and she explained the school’s commitment to te reo, led by Jaci Tipowai-Chambers and deputy principal Layton Lowe.

This was followed by a trip to the National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier and to Cape Kidnappers to visit the gannets, where they had to take cover from a major storm. That night each visiting family was hosted by a family from the school community and both groups wished this could have been longer – and it became the new highlight of their entire visit!

Special connection with New Zealand

The visitors expressed a genuine connection with New Zealand, particularly with Māori because of their similar histories including land struggles and language survival. In the US, the federal government recognises tribes but the state government doesn’t and there is a Federation of Alaskan Natives that looks after the interests of all indigenous people. The visitors commended the way the New Zealand government supports the interests of Māori.

Tanya Salmon said some of their traditions are also similar to Māori. Women used to tattoo their chins in the same manner as the moko but this hasn’t been the practice for many years. The traditional inking was using a twine, burning it and then sewing it through the skin to stain it.

When loved ones pass on, Tanya said they stay in the home and there is a 40-day feast. A jar of food is buried with loved ones to signify they are still with us.

Traditional homes in Igiugig were half in the ground and rounded, a reflection of the Yu’pik worldview, but they don’t have a place like the marae. Their archeology goes back many thousands of years but you can’t really tell because their people lived to leave no sign on the landscape.

Tribal clerk Jiles Pourier said New Zealand’s mountains are similar too, and there is a sleeping lady mountain in Alaska and in the North Island (Mount Karioi, Raglan, likened to a wāhine moe – sleeping lady).

Both countries also have a connection to the Alaskan bar-tailed godwit, which migrates from Alaska to New Zealand every year. According to biologists who tracked the flight, this female shorebird flew 7,145 miles (11,500km) non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand without taking a break for food or drink, completing the journey in nine days.

Both Igiugig and New Zealand are isolated in different ways: New Zealand by its geographical location in comparison to the rest of the world and Igiugig by its environment.

Subsistence Living

Igiugig is a village nestled alongside Alaska’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Iliamna, and the Kvichak River.

Subsistence living – the practice of hunting and fishing, or gathering food to live on (not to re-sell) – is very much at the heart and soul of this community and is in fact vital to their survival. Hunting includes caribou (reindeer), moose, waterfowl, beaver, porcupine and geese. Most animals are hunted with guns but trapping still occurs for fur-bearing animals such as wolves, red foxes, and lynx. Animal fur is used for hats, coats, ruffs (fur around the length of the hood of a winter coat) and gloves. Alaskan wolf fur is soft, warm and durable.
It’s mainly men that hunt but women sometimes go out too; Christina (right with her daughter Danika) recently shot a caribou.

Even one-year-olds have headed out on the snow machines – an essential mode of transport as there are almost no roads in Igiugig. This is a village that only got tap water 15 years ago.

Fishing is also a major way of life and there was a record salmon run of seven million in 2015. However, high salmon runs do push prices down because of oversupply, not ideal for Randy, vice-president of the Igiugig Village Council, who operates a commercial fishing business. Because salmon is a major food source, it is eaten in a variety of ways to keep it interesting: fresh, smoked, and is also frozen for storage.

Subsistence gathering including low and high bush cranberries, salmonberries, blueberries and mossberries is also important in summer. Some supplies need to be flown in and it’s only essentials such as flour because of the expense.

Hunting and fishing is physically demanding and to develop and maintain the fitness required, they exercise with games such as ‘The One-Foot High Kick’: tying a tennis ball to a piece of rope and hanging it from the ceiling – they have to jump from a standing position, kick the ball and land on the same foot they kicked it with. As well as the historical significance of these games in gathering food for survival, they help pass time during winter months when it can be dark for 19 hours.

BY Tania Black
Ministry of Education,

Posted: 1:23 pm, 9 May 2016

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