Wangkuta. This is a short word in Yupik, but its meaning is powerful. Wangkuta literally means “us” or “we.” Now, you see, I didn't just throw in a random Yup’ik word for your entertainment. With the flood of change in our society, we, wangkuta, should seek to preserve native traditions for our long-term knowledge and the good of the future. This process will not be simple; many customs have been lost because of historical trauma as well as choices people currently make that ignore or alter traditions. Revitalizing a culture--especially a dying culture--will not be easy. But it is possible. If we want to carry our past into the future, we need to start the tradition of a growth mindset.
Many of you may know about the flu epidemic of 1919 that wiped out nearly 40 million people worldwide, including nearly 85 percent of the native population in the Bristol Bay region in Alaska. The epidemic left orphans, depression, and despair in its wake. Another traumatic time in our history was the degradation caused by boarding schools that were in session between the late 1800s to mid-1900s. Children were often forced out of their homes and put into boarding schools where they could not speak their native tongue. If they did, they suffered the punishment or complete neglect. One individual who had been to boarding school said he would rather serve a tour in Vietnam. These tragic events are not just statistics, they are part of our history. Not only did much of the Yup’ik culture collapse with the flu epidemic and boardingschools, but so did the identity of “we”-wangkuta.
Because of these overwhelming experiences, many people turned to using substances for comfort, to fill in that never-ending gap in their soul. As a result of substance abuse, families were torn apart, causing a domino effect that descended from generation to generation. Communities let themselves drift away in a flood of outside influences, not realizing that the choices we make day by day directly influence the future. Today, many villages in Alaska face issues such as domestic violence, high suicide rates, and the loss of respect for culture. The question is, why have we let ourselves fall so far?
I believe the answer is that we have been traumatized by our past so much that we lost a great part of our history that makes us who we are. Fear is another large factor that plays in the loss of our identity. My mom told me a story of her mother, my grandma, who refused to teach Yupik to her children because she was afraid of the teachers punishing them for it. Wangkuta Meqellruukut, we have suffered.
But it is not too late. What if I told you it is not impossible to bring back Yup’ik language and culture if we changed how we see and do things? According to Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, people with a growth mindset believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. When you have a growth mindset, you learn from the past, and keep trying. Such a mindset creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Wangkuta piungukut, we can do this.
We can use the power of the growth mindset to revitalize our language and culture. If culture is so important to us, we should act like it. We need to address that we are in danger of cultural extinction. We need to see this process as an opportunity, not a chore.
Sometimes I ask myself, what does it mean to be a Yup’ik person in today’s changing world? What does it mean to have an ancestral history of pain and agony? What does it mean to be a part of a dying culture? And why am I not doing anything to change that? When it comes to culture, especially my culture, I see it as my duty to assist in the process of revitalization. Things that are learned should always be taught, especially in the Yup’ik culture; it doesn’t matter if you only know a few words in Yup’ik or you’re just grasping onto it. As long as we are making it a priority, things can only get better. Our ancestors are some of the toughest people on earth, surviving in a challenging environment. They had the growth mindset, and we can too. Wangkuta piungukut, we can do this. Quyana Nicugniluci, thank you for listening.