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Remote Alaskan Island Revives Aleut Language, Culture

St. Paul School students look out over the Bering Sea
Justine Kibbe

City and tribal-government employees on Alaska's St. Paul Island get Oct. 28 off each year for a holiday you might not have heard of: St. Paul Aleut Independence Day.

It marks the day in 1983 when Saint Paul islanders gained their freedom from the federal government. Various U.S. agencies had been running the island's fur seal harvest and economy for decades, leaving the locals as little more than wards of the state.

A long history of displacement and forced labor, stretching back to the days of the first Russian fur traders, has left its mark on Aleut culture in the Pribilof Islands and beyond.

Today, St. Paul islanders are trying to revive their language and their culture.

At the start of every school day, children at the St. Paul School say the pledge of allegiance in two languages: English and Aleut, also known as Unangam Tunuu.

Yet here in the world's largest Aleut, or Unangan, village, none of the children speak that language fluently.

"The youngest fluent speakers are about 75 years old," Aquilina Lestenkof with the Aleut Community of St. Paul's Office of Cultural Affairs said. Her tribal-government office is spearheading an effort not to preserve the Aleut language in dictionaries or mp3s, but to bring it back from the brink.

"At the beginning of this year, we had 18 fluent speakers, and I think we've lost like three or four. They've passed on," Lestenkof said. "So when you have those types of numbers, you start to chew your fingernails."

The need is urgent, but it might be unrealistic, if not inhumane, to plunk an elder straight into a classroom full of preschoolers and expect them to become a language teacher. Though it could delay the start of more widespread learning of the language, the St. Paul program is tapping elders' knowledge to develop more teachers first.


Credit John Ryan / KUCB
Aquilina Lestenkof leads St. Paul School students in a song about three chagix̂ (halibut) fishermen.

"Elders, they are very, very high-prized treasures right now for us," Lestenkof said.


"I love to talk in Aleut"

Only 96 fluent speakers of Unangam Tunuu remain anywhere, with the largest concentration on the island of Atka in the central Aleutians, according to the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. 

"People in our communities are more likely to speak Spanish than Unangam Tunuu," Millie McKeown with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association said.

A core group of just four elders is actively involved in St. Paul's language revival effort.

"I love to talk in Aleut," elder Gregory Fratis Sr. said. "It's fun."

He said when he goes to the grocery store, he'll just start talking to people in Unangam Tunuu.

Born in 1940, Fratis survived two years in a de facto prison camp in a Southeast Alaska fish cannery, along with other Aleuts forcibly removed from the Aleutians and Pribilofs during World War II. Back on St. Paul, he was punished in school, like his parents before him, when he spoke his native language.

"When I want to say something, it doesn't take long," Fratis said of Unangam Tunuu. "In the English language, it takes a lot of words, but the Aleut language just cuts it out."


Credit John Ryan / KUCB
St. Paul Island elder Gregory Fratis, Sr.

Fratis helped mentor Lestenkof and other aspiring teachers of Unangam Tunuu this summer at the first-ever Aleut language intensive program. Aspiring teachers from around the Aleutian and Pribilof islands came to St. Paul to attend. They met with elders in small groups. In conversations and skits, they went "hunting," as they call it, for bits of language from the elders' minds.

The goal is to have newly fluent speakers teaching in the school within three years.

The St. Paul program received a $286,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education this fall that should allow it to carry on for the next three years.

"It's going to work. We have to make it work," Fratis said. "That's our identity of who we are: your language, your culture, your tradition. "  

People need local languages to understand local places, according to Aquilina Lestenkof, whether that's a remote island in the Bering Sea, or just about anywhere else.

"We need to keep them in order to better understand our responsibilities on the whole of the earth," she said.


Hunting For Words, Hunting For Food

Words alone can't keep the deep local knowledge of the Pribilof Islands alive. So the tribal government is also helping teach children the islands' biology and how to survive off it.

On a rare calm, clear October morning, a group of middle-schoolers joins two hunters on the coastal tundra looking for food. As the sun rises over a flat Bering Sea, hunter Dimitry Zacharof scans the water. The waves are dotted with fur seals, but he's looking for a sea lion.

"If you see a bunch of seals in one area, they just start to disperse all of a sudden, a lot of times it's a sea lion coming in," Zacharof tells the students.

The hunt is part of Bering Sea Days: a special week of classes focused on the biology and traditions of the Pribilofs, with guest instructors from near and far.

Zacharof, who plans projects for the city of St. Paul when he's not hunting, stands on the tundra just above a rocky point where waves collide from two directions. He says if he can shoot a sea lion close to that point the waves will wash it ashore. The trick is getting a sea lion to come close enough.

"I yell at them just to get their attention," he explains. "Start moving around back and forth. Curiosity will get the best of them, and they'll come in."

The hunters see a sea lion, and they call to it with deep-throated roars. Some of the students join in.

The Unangan hunters have no luck this morning. But the students learn about two kinds of marine mammals, and they get to spend a school day outside.

"I like to learn different things and new things about our island," eighth-grader Carley Bourdukofsky says. She says seal is one of her favorite foods and she helps out when her dad goes hunting.

"I know how to tell difference between a male and female now," she says. "Their teeth, their canine teeth, are different from a female and a male."

At his home, Gregory Fratis Sr. says he still hunts whenever he gets the chance, even though he just turned 75. And now he helps people hunt for bits of Unangam Tunuu, the nearly lost language that he loves.

"If I could only bring it back, I'd be happy," Fratis says, first in Unangam Tunuu, then in English.

Reporting from St. Paul Island made possible in part by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

John Ryan worked for KUCB in 2015.