Waqaa Means “Welcome”

How one Yup’ik speaker uses language to put people at ease

Language isn’t just about communication. When you’re far from home, in a place that’s a little unfamiliar, where the customs aren’t yours and the food is different and the traditions are strange, hearing someone speak your language can be a comfort. Sharing language can make you feel understood. Language, in other words, can mean home.

For people using CITC’s outpatient recovery services and residents at the Ernie Turner Center (ETC), one man is making Yup’ik-speaking participants feel at home with the simple act of speaking a familiar language.

Growing Up with Yup’ik

Growing up in Napakiak, Jeffrey Egoak spoke Yup’ik primarily.

“My grandma had very limited English,” he recalled. “Everything she spoke was in Yup’ik, and she told us about yuuyaraq, our way of life. That word was brought up a lot, not just in my household, but in every household. It’s our subsistence way of life, how we got on about our daily lives, how we show ourselves to the community, how we give back, especially to Elders.”

Jeff makes new Ernie Turner Center (pictured) residents and outpatient participants feel at home by speaking with them in Yup’ik.

Jeff joined the National Guard as a young man, and honed his ear for dialect as he traveled up and down Alaska’s west coast. If he listened carefully, he could pinpoint which village a speaker hailed from based on how fast or slow they spoke and the inflection of their Yup’ik words.

He took his gift back to Bethel with him when he went to work at AVCP as a program support specialist. Later, he worked for a law office. His fluency in Yup’ik played a significant role in his work; he became the interpreter for Yup’ik-speaking clients at each job, helping individuals understand things like complicated medical and legal terms.

“Some medical terms don’t exist in Yup’ik, so you have to improvise,” he explained.

Then, in June of this year, Jeff came to work at CITC.

Waqaa, Quyana Uterrlluten (Welcome, Thank You for Coming Home)

He was filling in at the front desk at the Ernie Turner Center when he heard the familiar sounds of his Native language one day.

“It was phone time, and a participant was speaking to a family member in Yup’ik,” Jeff recalled. “I just wanted to let them know that I understood, so they would know. But that led to a conversation. He asked, in Yup’ik, where I was from, and I asked him. That’s how I got to know him. I just broke the ice.”

Soon, other CITC participants seeking recovery services were asking Jeff if he was from Bethel or if he could speak Yup’ik. Sometimes Jeff would detect the flavor of Yup’ik in someone’s accent or dialect, and he would ask if they knew the language.

The Ernie Turner Center in Eklutna celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer. Here, Administrative Supervisor Sasha Tsurnos gives a tour to visitors.

“I witnessed him building rapport with people and just making them feel welcome by speaking Yup’ik,” said Sasha Tsurnos, an administrative supervisor in CITC’s Recovery Services department.

For many people who come to CITC from remote communities, simply hearing a familiar language from home helps them feel at ease. Once, while giving a man a ride from the Chanlyut reentry program to the ETC, Jeff conversed with him in Yup’ik, explaining how nice the people at ETC were and what it would be like to live there.

“Just by looking at him, I could tell he was feeling more at ease after we talked,” Jeff said. He added, “Most of the people I talk to, they’ve been in Anchorage for a while. Sometimes it’s been five or six years since they’ve heard anyone speak Yup’ik.”

Learn more about CITC’s efforts to share the Yup’ik language here. To learn about the Ernie Turner Center or CITC’s Recovery Services, visit our program pages.