An Alutiiq language immersion preschool opened in Kodiak last month. The Sun’aq Tribe received a $2 million grant from the Administration for Native Americans to establish the nest school and keep it going over five years.
Teachers use song to transition the kids between open play and craft time and rally them to the rug. It’s a lot like any other preschool in that way, with singing and playing and crafts.
But the teachers make it a classroom rule to speak only in Alutiiq.
That’s to make sure that during the Tuesday and Thursday mornings that the kids go to school, they get full immersion.
Teacher Michael Bach introduces me around when I first arrive.
For me, that involves nodding and smiling and nodding some more. For the kids, it’s an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the Alutiiq language.
In a common pattern while I’m there, teachers speak in Alutiiq and kids respond in English. But students do engage with the language in other ways.
Later, the teachers and kids throw foam dice with pictures.
The children are supposed to act out whatever activity the dice lands on, like running. Bach calls out to the kids to run, or in Alutiiq, ‘qecengi’ and I catch one girl participating and repeating the word back.
For Bach, those are moments of triumph.
Bach, who grew up in rural Minnesota, previously worked at the Alutiiq Museum and has become a big part of efforts in the Alutiiq language revitalization scene.
He explains the preschool challenges his language skills as much as it does the kids’.
“It’s a lot of investment and it’s a lot of intellectual effort and that’s taxing, but then at the end of the day, you’re kind of like ‘oh my gosh, I can’t do anything more,’ and then the kid doesn’t ‘goodbye’ when they leave, they say ‘tang’rciqamken’ and ‘quyanaa.’”
Which means goodbye, or see you later, and thank you. Bach says that reassures him that he is doing a good job and that the kids are enjoying themselves.
“And so it’s kind of this roller coaster, and I’m sure every teacher out there and every parent out there or even every babysitter out there can sympathize with that where sometimes these kids – you’re just like, ‘wow, I’m exhausted, I don’t think I can put up any more effort,’ and then you get that little bit of joy and you think ‘okay, well, I’ll come back and do this tomorrow.’”
They ask for active involvement from families as well.
Local artist Hanna Sholl jumped right into it. She attends the classes with her three-year-old daughter and baby son.
“When I first started being involved and hanging out with my daughter and my son there, I asked for a list of mommy words that I could use because there’s certain things that I say like ‘be careful’ and ‘stop’ and ‘say sorry.’ Stuff like that. And so, that’s been how it’s been helpful for me to kinda integrate that into my daughter’s life.”
Sholl, whose two other kids are also Alutiiq learners, says she hopes the program will give her two youngest an early start.
“It’s really exciting to think that she won’t have to fight to learn a language, that it’ll be something that’ll just be super natural to her and to my son as well. We’re hoping that because he’s gonna be involved during the time frame where he’s learning to talk, that he will just naturally be bilingual.”
It’s a few weeks into the five year grant, and Bach says he’s already planning for a better program next fall. There are currently 10 students enrolled, and the semester ends in mid-May.