Alaska…the name alone
has always been in my fantasies. I was dreaming to one day get to see this other WWW, the Wild, Wild West. The good news is that you can find it still today. How did it all happen? A mere coincidence! My long time friend and former colleague from Montreal, Marie-France,
was supposed to attend a workshop of convention professionals here in Alaska. These workshops are called ICCA workshops and gather clients and suppliers in a relaxed atmosphere and as a way to network and discover the attractions of a special destination.
Alaska is a particularly hospitable destination which, unlike most other ICCA workshops throughout the world, extended the pre-meeting tour to accompanying people. So, after having told me I couldn’t attend it, I was told, litterally while disembarking from my 3 months-Southeast Asian trip that…I could attend the tour the following week.
Most of my good friends told me it was an opportunity not to be missed…some were more severe to a point I was told by a friend who got really concerned, that I was the anti-thesis of a Jewish Mother…Allow me to consider this a compliment and achievement given my very heavy ancestry in the matter;-)
So, just after having landed in Geneva, I started preparing a trip which my friend Anita qualified (wrongly) of going from+36 to -36….
Lots of myths subsist regarding this destination and I suspect Alaskans to make sure it remains that way;-)
To be honest, Anchorage is far from being a little village and it is as cosmopolitan as any world city these days. It’s a thrilling modern city lacking simply the traffic jams and the heavily populated streets. The cold is much less intense than I anticipated (roughly one or two degrees less than in downtown Geneva at present). Architecture, in a city that developped within the past 50 or 60 years, is stunning as it plays with the surrounding nature:
Of course, I was dreaming of seeing the Northern Lights, but this sign above is all I managed to catch! I was also lucky enough to be close to nature, visiting some moose, learning that they...talk ,,,
but above all, discovering the reality of climate change in the receding glaciers. They are so beautiful and getting smaller every year, it was a breathtaking and poignant impression as well as one of the moments I will cherish all my life!
…once a linguist and multiculturalist, always a sociolinguist…I couldn’t be in Alaska without trying to meet some native groups, especially after a wonderful visit of the Anchorage museum which allows visitors to really familiarize with this State’s incredible history, from the first settlements of Native Peoples Asian ancestors, a Russian territory, a French fur trader’s base, a British colony reached by the mythical
Captain Cook…to finally a recent US State .
What was the fortune or misfortunes of the Native People out here? How are they coping with the 21st Century…I was lucky enough to be able to chat a bit and to start an ongoing conversation with lovely Rochelle Adams, an Athabaskan, a Gwich’in (Kutchin) to be precise, whose cosmopolitan background actually outdoes mine by far! Despite solid Athabaskan origins and a feeling of belonging there, she’s got Swedish and Japanese ancestry to which she added a Mexican father of her three kids (marriage seems to be out of practice here in Alaska…I still need to find out how this happened!). To get back to the point, Rochelle is a language coordinator of a research project on language programs. With her colleagues, she received a State grant to conduct a research on the 20 languages and ‘dialects’ in order to build a language education plan in Anchorage, to identify potential language learners and to connect people as well as to share information. As the founder of Academie Sans Frontières and Sociolinguists on Facebook, I immediately felt a close tie to this research which just about started last december (2012). What attracts to me is that this research is geared to indigenous languages in urban setting for Anchorage.
Rochelle told me how she was fascinated by her great-grand-mother and grandparents who spoke their native language although her parents were the missing link. Upon going to the University of Fairbanks, Alaska, she took classes as a second language learner, then all possible classes to the point of being one of the main actors in her Professor’s thesis!
She felt a need and interest to listen to her great-grand mother, and to know more about culture and art in relation to her roots. Rochelle is also an artist, by the way, so this might explain a special sensitivity and need to connect to her family and people. She has a wonderful way of explaining it: “I’m not learning, but remembering, my tongue is waking up”. An active member of the Indigenous Rights Revolution Movement, Idle No More, she believes that it’s high time for native people to stand together and appreciates the fact this movement is lead by a woman.
The research project takes place within the Native Resource Center of Anchorage and the day I visited it, I saw some youth getting ready for the Native Youth Olympics which consists in traditional games which were supposed to help natives prepare for hunting, such as walking on ice etc. This is an after school program (cultural enrichment program) taking place in the winter at the Alaska Native Heritage Center by the way.
I invite you all to visit the ANHC Language Center and especially to have a look at their survey for potential comments and inputs as they are really looking for partnership in order not to reinvent the wheel, although they are really ready to start to work and get their own experience. They will be focusing on gathering all resources and making them available on the three groups present in Anchorage, the Athabaskans, Gwich’in and Eskimo-Aleut tribes.
The idea is to revert the dramatic situation and combination of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence against women and horrible suicide rate among the youth, especially in rural areas. Alaska has the worst statistics in relation to these for plagues as a result of assimilation and isolation. According to Rochelle, language revitalization and a strong support from the State is definitely going to help curve this human tragedy!
You might also find interesting the fact that Gwich’in is full of french terms, such as maci (merci), lecafé (coffee), lesel (salt), all trade items are in French and they play the fiddle music and dance the gigue like fur traders taught them back in the 17th century!
This language program is headed by Annette Evan-Smith (CEO), Amber Thomas (supervisor), Marcela and Rochelle (language coordinators). Once identified, the learners will be enrolled in classes according to their wishes and timetable.
I can never thank enough destiny for having made our paths cross and am certain now this visit to Alaska is only the beginning of a new adventure!
This is far to be all I saw in this State where licence plates proudly proclaim that this is “the last fronteer” and one of the main reason I decided to go from 36 degrees Celsius to minus 5 is that it was for me a lifetime opportunity to attend….the IDITAROD RACE. I cannot tell you how exciting this whole event is, with mushers from all over the world competing on this mythical 1000 miles race from Anchorage to Nome!
We had been able to have a preview of what we would see at the race when we met Dallas Seavey Mushers for a wonderful experience in the wild:
but today was the real McCoy…I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to greet Martin Buser, the mythical champion, a Swiss by birth who says he doesn’t miss Switzerland at all but consider his Swiss education, near Zurich, helped him be organized and systematic (“Switzerland is a good country to come from”). Martin is now American but his upbringing definitely sets him in a special class, as all Alaskans recognized, who have actually adopted him. He was by far the most greeted and was the first to start the race this morning. Enjoy these photos but remember, if you get the chance, do come and see these amazing dogs and their even more amazing mushers, some of whom are famous for having practice a mouth to mouth resuscitation to their dogs!!! Among the other mushers I noticed was a Brazilian one, a French one Nicolas Petit, now American, and a Minnesota lady who is 65 years old and still competing….Chapeau bas!!!
And the Grand Finale was a train ride in a private train. I will never be able to thank enough Marie-France Polidori for giving me the amazing opportunity to share with her this unbelievable experience, and above all the fabulous Julie Dodds,
from Visit Anchorage who was the mastermind behind this smooth organization and added my demands, such as visiting some natives, with a smile, a couple of phone calls and a dedication that went right into my . This train ride along the bay, the second largest tide in North America, was a breathtaking experience I hardly recover from…Nature at its shiniest, freshest and most exquisite. Shabat Shalom;-))