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YouTube Star Revives Traditional Alaskan Culture


We often hear about the ways in which technology is changing our relationship to the past. One teenager from the tiny village of Toksook Bay, Alaska, is using technology to revitalize his language and culture and bring it to the rest of the world. Josie Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum have more.

ISAAC KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Byron Nicholai was 14 when he started his Facebook page, I Sing, You Dance.

JOSIE HOLTZMAN, BYLINE: He uploaded this homemade music video of him covering Nikki Minaj's "Anaconda."


BYRON NICHOLAI: (Singing) My anaconda don't, my anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hon.

KESTENBAUM: His friends liked the video so he posted a few more. One day, though, eager to please his audience but with no zany idea in mind, he decided to ditch the chipmunk voice and posted a video of himself singing traditional music in his own voice and in his first language, Yup'ik.


NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik).

KESTENBAUM: The videos went viral.


NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik).

HOLTZMAN: Nicholai is 18 now. In the past year, he was featured in a short documentary that premiered at Sundance, he's one of the Obama administration's Arctic Youth Ambassadors and he's even performed at the State Department in Washington, D.C. His first big hit was a song called "I Am Yup'ik."

NICHOLAI: Can I just, like, sing it for a little bit? OK, it goes like this. (Singing in Yup'ik).

KESTENBAUM: It's a celebration of his native identity.

NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik) So it says, here in Alaska there are many cultures. And me, I am Yup'ik.

KESTENBAUM: Yup'ik is the largest of Alaska's major native cultural groups, and it's the most widely spoken language. Still, like Native Americans in the rest of the country, a generation of Yup'ik speakers was sent to boarding schools in the early to mid-20th century. They were forced to learn English, which they in turn passed on to their kids. To reach this younger audience, Nicholai decided to mix up his message.

NICHOLAI: Some of the songs that I've composed are modern songs mixed with Yup'ik songs so the teenagers who are modern could, like, still be in between instead of just moving towards modern or towards tradition. Like, after I released that song on a video on Facebook, it was everywhere. Kids were singing it from other villages. Kids my age were singing it. Adults were singing it.

HOLTZMAN: But it's not just the music. It's the medium.

ANGELA GONZALEZ: People really connect with Facebook in rural Alaska.

HOLTZMAN: That's Angela Gonzalez who handles communications and outreach for Rural Alaska Community Action Program, a nonprofit that works with low-income Alaskans.

GONZALEZ: I've heard Facebook being called the new VHF radio because people can make announcements and it'll get out to a lot of people, young and old.

HOLTZMAN: What she means by VHF radio is CB radio, like the kind truckers use.

KESTENBAUM: It's been an essential way of communicating in Alaska's remote villages. It's used to announce everything from emergencies to plane landings to birthday wishes. But that's changing with the spread of iPhones and Facebook. Most of the Alaskan Bush gets Internet through satellite. It can be painfully slow. Netflix is out of the question, even in larger villages. But it's still fast enough for news to travel.

NICHOLAI: Facebook is just, like, one big village where everybody could know what everybody's doing (laughter).

HOLTZMAN: Byron Nicholai's Facebook village is now about 24,000 followers, a big reach for a high school senior. In October, he released his first album, "I Am Yup'ik." It came out on Yuk Media, a label run by Yup'ik musician Mike McIntyre, who, like Nicholai, wants to use new technology to bring back the old ways

MIKE MCINTYRE: This is kind of like a goal here, like, making Yup'ik cool again. And it's very important that we, you know, keep that. It's who we are.

KESTENBAUM: It seems to be working. And Byron Nicholai couldn't be happier.

NICHOLAI: I've gotten comments saying that my songs are teaching Yup'ik kids some words. So they're actually learning Yup'ik as they're learning how to sing the song.

KESTENBAUM: In fact, a couple of them are in the Yuk Media recording studio today, Mike McIntyre's kids.

MICAH MCINTYRE: Hi, my name is Micah (ph).

DYLAN MCINTYRE: Hi, my name is Dylan (ph).

MCINTYRE: What do you guys think about Byron's music?

DYLAN: Awesome.

MICAH: It's awesome.

MCINTYRE: Do you guys know how to sing "I Am Yup'ik?"

MICAH AND DYLAN: (Singing in Yup'ik).

HOLTZMAN: Mike McIntyre and Byron Nicholai think maybe that's the key to the survival of Alaskan native culture in the 21st century. Celebrate it, update it, share it, like it.

NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik).

HOLTZMAN: For NPR News, I'm Josie Holtzman.

KESTENBAUM: And I'm Isaac Kestenbaum.

NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik).

SIMON: This story was produced as part of Frontier of Change, a project of member station KNBA and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. I'm Scott Simon.

NICHOLAI: (Singing in Yup'ik). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Josie Holtzman
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