Language Camp Helped 65 Students Improve Their Sugt’stun Speaking Skills

January 23, 2018
A map of the Chugachmiut region

Prior to 2012, Chugachmiut communities in Alaska had only school-based Native language programs, none of which had produced fluent speakers. That is why the Chugachmiut applied for ANA funding for their “Sugt’sturllinaq Nupuglluta: We Only Speak Sugt’stun” project. Conducted from 2012 to 2015, this project developed and implemented a language camp for youth ages 10-17 for 4 communities in the region.

Project staff spent part of the first year before their inaugural camp training staff, developing the curriculum, encouraging registration, and coordinating travel amongst the four communities. Four Master Language Teachers and 4 apprentices were trained in Total Physical Response (TPR) language acquisition. This is a kinesthetic language method utilizing hand gestures and body movement.

Curricula were planned around various themes. Each lesson at camp included two hours for vocabulary building, two hours to play language games that built simple sentences, and time for cultural activities tied to the curriculum. Berry picking, drying fish, and storing food for winter are just a few examples of these activities.

Each two-week long camp ended with the gifting of Elder Boxes that contained the products of the cultural, subsistence activities. A community potluck was also held where the children danced and sang Sugt’stun songs to their family and community.

By the end of the project, more than 22 masters, apprentices, camp directors, and program staff had received 280 hours of TPR, language assessment, and alternative language teaching methods training. 3 camps were held with more than 73 students attending. Sixty-five students completed the language camps and 85% of these advanced one sub-level in Sugt’stun. Time spent at camp instilled cultural pride in the youth who not only increased fluency but learned traditional subsistence practices. Youths were also able to engage more with those from the other three communities.

The camp impacted the Chugachmiut outside of youth language acquisition, particularly for elders. The Elder Boxes made recipients feel special and affirmed the values of respecting and treating elders well. One elder said that the language camp provided healing from trauma and gave elders more of a purpose. Another elder cried at hearing youth play a game in their language.