Celebrate critical importance and diversity of our Alaska Native languages at the First Alaskans Institute 36th Annual Elders & Youth Conference (Elders & Youth). Our theme, “Qaneryararput Yugtun Piniqerput” (Yup’ik) and “Qaneryararput Cugtun Kayuqerput” (Cup’ik) loosely translates into English as “Language is Our Superpower.” To learn, live and speak our languages every day, a direct line to our Ancestors and the living personification of our beautiful lands of Alaska, brings us both backwards and forwards in time! As indigenous peoples alive today, we get to be part of the generation who keep the fires of our languages alive, and that makes us stronger. We proudly announce our keynote speakers who will speak to this theme.
Elder Tugidam Ayagaa Sally Swetzof (Unangax) was born and raised in a family of seven in Atka by her single mother, Clara Snigaroff. Her maternal grandparents were Andrew Snigaroff of Atka, an Iqyax (kayak) builder, and Mary (Prokopeuff) Snigaroff of Attu, a basket weaver. Her mother and grandparents lived through the tragedy and trauma of the evacuation and internment during World War II. Unangam Tunuu is her first language. She has overcome challenges of learning the English language in elementary school and going through the Bureau of Indian Affairs school system.
Starting as an administrative aide, Tugidam Ayagaa worked her way up to the Unangam Tunuu language head teacher to all K-12 students at the Atka Netsvetov School. She is a founding member of Atxam Taligisniikangis (Atka Dancers), providing vital translations for many of the group’s original songs. In 2001, she began teaching sewing and beading of regalia and headdresses, and traditional food gathering and preparation, all while incorporating Unangam Tunuu. She is passionate about instilling in her children and grandchildren’s generations to be proud of who they are as Native people and to live and share our ways of life, including speaking our own languages.
In 2013, Tugidam Ayagaa was awarded the Shareholder of the Year Award by The Aleut Corporation and the Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Culture Bearer Award. She is a life-long Eastern Orthodox Christian and one of her greatest joys in life is serving the Church. Throughout the years, she has served on many boards and councils in Atka and in the Aleutian region, including as the Mayor of the City of Atka (1997-1999). Tugidam Ayagaa now serves on the Atxam Corporation Board of Directors and is President of the Aleut International Association. She is a cultural consultant for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) Wellness Program and an Elder speaker mentor for the regional Language Revitalization program. She has contributed to the APIA Unangam Tunuu App, Atka dialect.
Tusagvik Oliver Hoogendorn (Iñupiaq) and Mungnak Wilson Hoogendorn (Iñupiaq) were born and raised in Nome. Their parents are Brenna Outwater and Willy Hoogendorn. Their maternal grandparents are Martha Outwater and Richard Durham Jr. and paternal grandparents are Homer Hoogendorn and BJ Bains-Jordan. In May, the brothers climbed Denali, the highest mountain in North America. At first, they joked about doing the hike as their new challenge, but they kept talking about it and thought, “Why not?” At 20,310 feet above sea level, it took them 14 days to ascend Denali and a day and a half to ski down.
Tusagvik is 22 years old, currently attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, soon to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Biology. He enjoys backcountry skiing, running, carving ivory and making ulus. “My favorite part about being Iñupiaq is the land, plants and animals that live on that land. You can’t beat going for a long run on the tundra. I remember seeing a heard of caribou and eating blueberries. That’s what I think about when I think of my culture.” Tusagvik’s favorite food is boiled fish with seal oil, tukkaiyuk (willow greens) and black meat all in one bite. While he continues to find his own direction in life, he hopes to be someone his younger siblings and youth can look up to. He stands up for what he believes in and is not afraid to work through and learn from uncomfortable situations. He is willing to try new things even though it may not be what is expected of you. Climbing Denali taught him not everything has to be done fast or completed the first time.
Mungnak is 20 years old and is majoring in Aeronautical Studies to become a pilot at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His hobbies include skiing, running and carving ivory. He enjoys being active and breathing fresh air outside. In high school, Mungnak took part in cross country running and skiing, which led to ski biathlon and qualifying for the Arctic Winter Games in Greenland. He biked from Anchorage to Colorado on his own, which took 40 days. He values how accepting everyone is in his culture and believes it leads to harmonious living. Mungnak says, “I now know I can do whatever I want. I won’t let anything stop me. Seems simple, but once you realize it, it really helps you. Climbing Denali really solidified this for me.”