Voices of Our Ancestors: Documentary film to revitalize the Indigenous languages

 

Yup’ik, Inupiat, Tlingit, Alutiiq, Koyukon, Aleut, Tsimshian, Gwich’in, Haida… Alaska is home to more than 20 Native languages. From the fjords in the Southeast to the northern tundra where it meets the Arctic Ocean, the Alaskan languages have been spoken and sung for tens of thousands of years. Sadly, all of them are facing an imminent risk of extinction.

On this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day (Oct 8), the UAF community had an opportunity to reflect on revitalizing the Indigenous languages. An award-winning documentary short, “Voices of Our Ancestors”, was screened to the public in the Ballroom at Wood Center.

‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates) is introducing his documentary short, “Voices of Our Ancestors” to the audience before the screening.

The event started with an introduction to the film by the director, ‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates). Yates is a Haida from Craig, Alaska, majoring in Film here at UAF. “Our mission is to spread awareness on the state of our languages right now, to inspire others to learn their language, and to provoke them to teach what they know,” said Yates to the audience of about 50 people.

The 12-minute-long documentary was shot mostly at Yates’ home, starring his Yup’ik wife, Charleen, and daughter, Nayak’aq. Yates narrated how the Yup’ik and Haida languages are being forgotten as elders pass away, along with the hope to revitalize the languages. “After having my daughter, she re-woke my spirits. She made me realize that I don’t know enough to continue on our history,” said the Haida director in the film.

The film showed the Yates’ teaching their daughter Yup’ik and Haida by reading her children’s books and putting name tags on various objects in the house. Nayak’aq, who was at the screening with their parents, would grin and laugh whenever she saw herself on the screen. Although the circumstances of her languages are certainly not positive, the big smiles that she made to her elders’ songs showed a living hope. With parents like the Yates’, her languages will survive and be passed on to her and her children.

The documentary film, “Voices of Our Ancestors”, is screening in the UAF Ballroom in Wood Center.

The greatest moments in making “Voices of Our Ancestors” were “Seeing the growth of my daughter’s knowledge of both her culture’s language; that and my wife is understanding more Haida and I am learning more Yup’ik,” Yates told the Sun Star in an email interview. He said his family was his biggest inspiration to create this film.

“My wife’s culture is so beautiful and vibrant, it’s not hard to see how strong their culture is. With my language, Haida language is slipping away, my goal is to keep it alive and the best way I know is to teach it to my daughter. My wife and I agreed before our daughter was born that we wanted to teach her our languages.”

In fact, Charleen was not only his motivation but also one of his most valuable colleagues. The film’s authentic feels of home and intimacy that gave the audience a warm satisfaction naturally stemmed from his close collaboration with others.

“Charleen helped me out tremendously and not with just the cultural side, but she made sure the story was there and would notify me if anything looked of sounded off. I received a lot of advice from my professor, Rob Prince as well. After going to my wife, I’d go to him to get more of the filming side of the advice. Other than those two, my co-worker, Buck, helped me out a lot with my outline and helping me how to animate my title,” Yates wrote.

But not all processes were smooth, the filmmaker also mentioned. “On this project, I was doing both [the technology and story] sides. I was directing, starring, working with sound, everything. In the beginning we had to re-do a few interviews because the audio wasn’t up to par.”

‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates) talking with the audience after the screening, holding his daughter, Nayak’aq, in his arms.

And it seemed like Yate’s endeavor has paid off. Wataru Takahashi, an anthropology exchange student and amateur filmmaker from Japan, praised “Voices of Our Ancestors” as a “very well-done film” with so much information in short runtime yet with the perfect amount of weight.

Takahashi said, “the reason I found [the film] very interesting is because, usually in university, all teachers and students think we have to study –in general, people have to study–their own language, but they don’t say they want to teach their own children in the future. Now I want to know more about the Alaskan languages.”

He sounded inspired by how the Yates’ taught their daughter Yup’ik and Haida. “I found it really cool that when they put stickers which he writes the name of the furniture in their language. It’s very cool to learn language as a life-tool in baby’s life. For me, I can use that way to learn the Athabascan, Yup’ik or Inupiat language,” said Takahashi. He was already a fan of Voices of Our Ancestors.

“Films are a really good tool to inform who don’t know or who don’t have really strong interest in this kind of issue,” he said with enthusiasm. “I really want to watch the full-length film.”

Image courtesy of FBX Films

Yates is currently making the 26-minute-long television version of Voices of Our Ancestors with a plan to have it completed by the end of this year. This longer version will contain the stories of the Yates’ visit to Kasigluk, Alaska, where Charleen is from. Yates is also planning on making a full-length version of the documentary but told the Sun Star that it is hard to predict what will be in it. “My goal is that we will go to my hometown, Craig, Alaska, and have both my wife and daughter adopted in the Haida culture so that they both can have a clan. Within the documentary, I explain further on what all that means,” the rising director showed his ambitions.

“A message I would like to share with the Indigenous communities at UAF is that I am honored every time I am able to speak. I know there was a time that if you were able to speak to a crowd, you were most high honored to do so,” Yates wrote.

He also shared a message to the UAF’s non-Native populations, “a Seawolf is a Haida creature that we share in our stories often. Before you chant ‘what’s a Seawolf’, Google the question first!”

“Voices of Our Ancestors” won Best Alaska Film by the MôTif Film Festival in 2018 and an award by the Ketchikan Film Festival in the same year. The documentary was also nominated and officially selected at other film festivals.

Yates can be reached at his team’s website. “Voices of Our Ancestors” can be found on Facebook and Instagram.




Colors, glitters and beats! Caravan of GLAM takes over The Pub

For at least one night every semester, UAF turns into a venue of pride where everyone can be whoever they want to be, as free as they can ever be. This fall, the night of colors and glitters arrived on Sep. 21, as the Caravan of GLAM came to perform at The Pub in Wood Center.

The Caravan of GLAM is a drag show based out of Portland, Oregon. At this Fairbanks show, Johnny Nuriel, Verxsai, and Isaiah Esquire took the stage along with local performers, Vivi and Bianca. The audience of over a hundred people filled The Pub. It was not hard to catch the evident excitement in the air, especially with guests of all age in a variety of shiny costumes.

The show kicked off as Nuriel, Esquire and Verxai danced on the stage to “Bang Bang” by Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. Esquire encouraged everyone to take pictures during the show, not forgetting to mention how fabulous their costumes were.

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The host of the show was Bianca. In their red skirt with white polka dots, Bianca led the show by doing jokes with and dancing among the audience. The crowd cheered even louder every time Bianca walked into them to collect tips.

Verxai pushed the already heated audience even further to the edge by inviting one of them onto the stage for a shot of drink. But Verxsai didn’t stop there. To everyone’s amusement, Verxsai drank the rest of the bottle bottoms up.

Nuriel, who was on the stage in a glittering red dress, was perhaps the highlight of the first act. They swirled and spun around with flashy scarves in both hands, leaving the audience no choice but to hold their breath. It was when Nuriel stripped almost naked the audience broke the silence with a roaring cheer. Esquire scored the last session of the first act with their acting, comedy, and dancing.

The performers continued to showcase their respective talents. Verxsai in a Mulan costume opened the second act by acting out “Reflection”. Vivi showed off their adorable yet eccentric dance moves, which included their bra pads flying out.

Following the dances, strip-teases, and jokes by Esquire and Verxsai, Nuriel waved and swirled two long rainbow-colored scarves.

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“If we don’t step outside of our comfort zone, we never be able to get a chance to learn how we think and what we experience,” Esquire said in a heart-to-heart before the last number. “Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. So please be patient and be kind and be receptive of other people.”

In an email interview with the Sun Star, Justin Buckles, producer of the show, has sent a similar message to the UAF and LGBTQ communities of Fairbanks. “Never be afraid to be yourself! Live open, live honest, work hard, set goals, and do all that you can to steer clear of the BS and drama. Every single person has the ability to achieve whatever they set their minds too,” Buckles wrote.

Johnny Nuriel, a cast member of the Caravan of GLAM, is performing at The Pub.

And it seems like Buckles and his cast have found an original way to live a brave and joyous life. When Buckles started the Caravan of GLAM in 2013, he wanted to create “outside-of-the-box entertainment and tour into smaller cities and towns that do not have big city entertainment.”

“My goal is to expand the brand around the world. I currently book Isaiah and Johnny around the world at festivals, and a lot of that exposure has come from their involvement with the Caravan of GLAM. We’re in 20 states and Canada already, with a bunch of television and media appearances under our belts as well,” Buckles wrote.

It was not hard to see that Buckles’ plan has worked out so far. The audience at the show was very content with their ‘GLAMorous’ experience. Bryce Schwarz, a justice undergraduate, said this was his first time coming to see the Caravan of GLAM.

“There is a lot of interesting bits in between the performances, and they are a lot of fun. It’s a very good experience, and I would definitely recommend it to everybody who’s interested in it or curious about it,” said Schwarz.

This September’s show was the Caravan of GLAM’s sixth performance at UAF. Considering the success of the show, it is expected that the Caravan will return to Fairbanks in February next year.

Meanwhile, Buckles is bringing Latrice Royale from RuPaul’s Drag Race to town on Nov. 3.

Check out the Caravan of GLAM’s website for future shows.