126_DLO Language Champion Promotion_ESAI2_FB-IN.jpg

Born and raised in Nikolai, the upper Kuskokwim Athabascan community on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River, Daniel Esai is a language learner, teacher and speaker of Dinak’i. His parents are Dora Esai and the late Phillip Esai, both of Nikolai. His family includes sisters Martha Runkle and Jacqueline Esai, both of Nikolai, and several nieces and nephews.

Daniel’s paternal grandparents are Gleman Esai of the Nikolai area and Martha Alexie of the area surrounding Stony River, Sleetmute and Lime Village. Daniel’s maternal grandparents are Golgomy and Alexandria Dennis, both of the Nikolai area.

Daniel, 56, pursued vocational education and went on to work as a roughneck and roustabout for Doyon Drilling. His goals include rejoining Doyon Drilling and taking part soon in the Doyon Leadership Training program for shareholders seeking to develop leadership skills. He’s eager for computer training for work readiness and self-sufficiency. Daniel enjoys hunting and fishing to support his family, while caring for his elderly mother.

“I learned to speak my language from parents and my Grandma Alexandria,” Daniel recalls.

Growing-up years found him gravitating to the Elders, listening to them speak their language and absorbing their wisdom. “I miss the days when I used to listen to my Aunt Katherine Deaphon, when we used to laugh and speak our language a lot,” Daniel says. “I learned a lot from everyone.”

As he writes on his Facebook page, Daniel believes in family, sharing what we’re given and being kind — values he traces to following in the ways of Elders. “I was always hanging around the old people – I don’t know why that is, but I believe it taught me to be nice to others and that has kept me alive.”

He tells the story of an old blind man who lived among the people of Nikolai and was tormented by children who poked the man with sticks before running away. “I would fight with the ones who picked on the blind man,” Daniel says, adding that kindness and helping the vulnerable have kept him alive.

“My language means the whole thing to me,” he says. “It will point me in which direction to go when I die.” He recalls instructions handed down through the generations: “When I pass away, I’ll be asked what my clan is and I will answer in Dinak’i, Dichinanek Hwtana clan.”

Daniel serves on Doyon Foundation’s advisory committee for the Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim) language, as part of the Foundation’s Doyon Languages Online project. Doyon Language Online is developing introductory online lessons for the Alaska Native languages of the Doyon region, including Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Deg Xinag, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aanděeg’ (Tanacross), Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Hän, Holikachuk, and Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana). The Foundation launched the first four online language-learning courses in summer 2019, and courses are now available for free to all interested learners through the Doyon Foundation website.

Doyon Languages Online is funded by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), awarded in 2016, and an additional three-year grant from the Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP), awarded in 2017. The project is a partnership with 7000 Languages, a nonprofit that supports endangered language learning through software donated by Transparent Language.

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we believe it is important to recognize people who are committed to learning and perpetuating their ancestral language. We are pleased to share some of these “language champion” profiles with you.

If you know a language champion, please nominate him or her by contacting our language program director at haytona@doyon.com. Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here. You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website, or sign up to access the free Doyon Languages Online courses here.