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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.