Friday, January 27, 2006

Alaskan Natives Visit New Zealand Native Culture Conference

A group of Alaskan natives from Kodiak had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand to attend a native culture conference down there and it turned out to be an eye opening experience. The native Maori of New Zealand have been unusually successful at maintaining their language and culture. Their language is recognized as an official language of New Zealand, they are influential in the government and their children grow up fluent in Maori. The Alaskan native delegation attended the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Hamilton, New Zealand, in late November and early December, hoping to return home with ideas to mirror that success.

"It seems everything they do, they've got the golden touch," April Laktonen Counceller of the Alaskan native delegation said. She added, "We wanted to learn how the Maori people preserve their language and culture and are economically successful."

Seven Kodiak Islanders from Alaska involved in the native Alutiiq language program attended the conference to make a presentation on collaborative leadership. The delegates aimed to represent a broad swath of the island, with Counceller, Alisha Drabek, Florence Pestrikoff, Julie Knagin, Mary Haakanson, Peggy Stoltenberg and Susan Malutin. The Shoonaq Tribe, Afognak Native Corp., the Native Village of Afognak, the Koniag Corp. and individuals all contributed money towards the trip. The group also held a drawing to help the elders finance the trip.

More than 3,000 international delegates attended. Counceller said it was a moral boost to see people all over the world fighting the same battles to continue their cultures.

"We ended up being able to learn from everyone, to get that worldwide perspective on indigenous people," Counceller said.

"It felt really good to be around so many people trying to improve their community. It didn't matter if they were from an island in the South Pacific or an island in the North Pacific, like Kodiak," she said.

If only a smattering of adults study a language, it will fade away, she said. Only if children are raised speaking a language will enough new speakers replace the older speakers who die.

Kodiak Island has 35 fluent native Alaskan Alutiiq speakers. Their average age, 74, exceeds the life expectancy for natives in the region.

"There's a lot of urgency to what we do," Counceller said.

In the past year, several Alutiiq speakers have died. In a decade, they could all be gone. "We're fighting against the tide," Counceller said.

One element of the Maori's success is their preschools, which teach in the Native language. Stoltenberg, a teacher in Old Harbor, said that in addition to touring the preschools, the group also chanced to visit a Maori teacher training center while waiting at the bus depot. One of the teachers demonstrated the silent method, where instruction takes place only in the language being taught and uses different colored rods to illustrate words. "She had found success with that method teaching adults and children. People who learn that method learn it quickly," Stoltenberg said.

She was also impressed, and hopes to institute in Old Harbor, the way Maori incorporate the language into every aspect of their lives.

There are similar battles to preserve native languages throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Many tribes are hoping to incorporate their native languages into their local school systems.

To see some artwork from this region, see Pacific Northwest Native Indian Art.

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