Our language is our strength and power

by Cody Ferguson


My name is Cody Ferguson. I am from Chevak, but I reside in Anchorage these days. My mother is the late Lena Ferguson/Ulroan and my father is Harry Ferguson. My stepmother’s name is Thabthimthong Ferguson, and she is from Thailand.

I absolutely love listening to Ketvarrluku with Peter Atchak because it really helps me to retain a lot of Yup’ik and Cup’ik. It’s good to hear Peter speak in Cup’ik, as it is a little different than Yup’ik, but I listen to the Ketvarrluku every day because each episode is posted on the KYUK website. I especially like how he reminds the callers to only speak in Yup’ik or Cup’ik. Quyana KYUK!

The thing I love the most about Ketvarrluku is listening to all the elders call in to express their concerns, gratitude, offer advice, and share our Yup’ik/Cup’ik values that were taught to them by our ancestors. I often hear elders calling in say that their mothers or their fathers told them about whatever it is that they are speaking about.

I especially love listening to Eula David. I’ve listened to her in person one time in Bethel during a conference and I was very impressed with how eloquent she was with her words. She taught us that we should start talking to our young babies about the direction they should be going in life as early as two months because even if it would seem like they are not aware, they are.

Take for example; sometimes our children recall experiences that would seem like they shouldn’t remember because we thought they were too young, but they remember those experiences and surprise us from time to time.

What I am writing today is regarding teaching our Yup’ik and Cup’ik language to the young people. It was the case for me and most of my peers in Chevak that we couldn’t speak to our elders in Cup’ik. One Sunday my mother woke me up and told me to bring my late grandmother, Angelina Ulroan, to church. The first time I brought her she was eagerly waiting for me in her parka ready to go. When I walked in, she quickly searched for her gloves and we went straight out the door. As we were about to get on the snow machine, she spoke to me in Cup’ik. It seemed like she was asking me a question. I absolutely did not understand one word that she said. She spoke to me in Cup’ik again, but I was so lost that I just stood there in silence like a dummy. She got a little frustrated and just boarded the snow-go and we went.

I grew up being taught to respect our elders. When an elder walked in the classroom we instantly put everything away to listen to the elder speak. It seemed like they especially liked to drop by the classrooms around this time when the ice starts to form to scold us about playing on the ice when it was still thin.

We were taught to offer our seats to the elderly, help them by doing their chores, and to behave accordingly when they were around. We especially tried our best to share our catch and food to them, especially the widows.

When my grandmother got frustrated at the fact that I couldn’t understand a word she said, I took that to heart. I felt guilty. I felt very bad that I couldn’t communicate to my own grandmother. Since that day, I made it a priority of mine to always learn our language.

I am not fluent. I know a little bit, enough to communicate on a very elementary level. I have been teaching myself Cup’ik for more than a decade now, but I am nowhere near being fluent. It’s because there aren’t enough people in my life speaking to me in Cup’ik on a day to day basis. So, when I ask how to say this or how to say that, I learn it right then and there, but will not use that certain word or phrase for a long time, and I will forget it. Our minds don’t retain our language that way. The only way that it is retained is if we speak it all day every day, but that involves the help of fluent speakers. Even fluent speakers who move away outside our region tend to forget words and phrases because they don’t speak it as much as they did before.

I don’t have enough fluent speakers in my life to speak to me on a day to day basis. I certainly try to speak to fluent speakers when I first approach them, but eventually we will transition into English because it gets to a point that I mix things up or just don’t understand, so the speaker will switch to speaking in English to me.

On the other hand, the generation after me, those young little kids are learning our language. There are immersion programs in Chevak, Bethel, and even Anchorage, (maybe in other locations as well) that are teaching our language to the young kids. One day I saw my first cousin’s daughter and the both of us were speaking to each other in Cup’ik. I was amazed! I was so proud! That shows me that we are really trying to revive our language again, and that is good. But there is a generation that was skipped regarding learning our language. That’s my generation.

I don’t want to be a part of a generation that looks back and says, “Why didn’t we learn our language?”

I want to encourage our elders and parents to try their best to teach that generation our language. It can be frustrating at times having to repeat yourselves, and feeling like there is no progress getting done, but like anything, at first it’s hard, but the more it is done the easier it gets until one day it will be that the deed is done, and torch will be passed down to us to continue passing our language down to future generations to come.

I can speak Cup’ik to a point. I can understand it, to a point, but most of everything that I know about our language was self-taught. I would research words and phrases. I read Cup’ik and Yup’ik at ease, but I don’t fully understand what I am reading. I always ask my aunties and fluent speakers questions about how to say words and sentences, or what a certain word means. All my efforts can only bring me so far, though. I need help.

A couple of people who help me time and time again with a positive attitude, and a lot of patience are my aunties Pauline Tuluk and Carrie Ulroan. I also have to mention my former co-worker Valerie Maxie from Napaskiak. Those three women happily help me learn Cup’ik, and as a student of our language I appreciate them for willingly teaching me even if sometimes it takes me a while to learn what is being taught. To me, those women really care for our language.

I also want to mention that Agatha John and her WHOLE family are also people who teach me a lot about the Yup’ik language. When I visit them, they’ll speak to me in nothing but Yup’ik. Even their young little kids there, they speak to me in Yup’ik. They are the ones who really put our language first and share it with others.

I praise all those people who I mentioned for caring for our language so that it lives on. I praise all the educators incorporating our language into their curriculum. I praise all of you who speak to your children and grandchildren. You’re the stewards of our language.

Our language is our strength and power. It points in the direction of who we are and where we come from. It has ties to the land and animals around us. It gives us a sense of identity and purpose. I encourage every fluent speaker to do their best with teaching our language to our people.

One of our lessons that are taught to us by our elders is that they speak to us because they love us. I am aware that means that they speak to us about life lessons, difficult topics, and our values out of love because they want us to lead a successful life, but I want to use that saying in a different way. Speak to us in Cup’ik/Yup’ik because you love our Cup’ik and Yup’ik culture and people. Like two-month-old babies who might seem like they are unaware but are, us young Cup’ik and Yup’ik might seem like we don’t understand our language, but somewhere deep down inside of us, we do. We yearn to learn it, so teach us!

Quyana niicugniluci. Kenkutmeng tuyuramci tamarpeci.

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