126_DLO Language Champion Promotion_FB-INI’m so proud of Doyon Foundation for its work with our languages”

Paul Mountain is the son of Josephine Rita (Nickoli) and Simeon Charley Mountain Senior. Paul’s maternal grandparents are Maria Catherine (K’elestemets) and Paul (Naakk’oos) Nickoli. His paternal grandparents are Vivian (Sipary) Peter and Cosmas Mountain. Cosmas’ parents are Charley and Mary Mountain.

Paul’s Alaska Native language is Denaakkenaage’, spoken by Koyukon Athabascan people of Nulato and Kaltag. He graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1991, and holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics with a minor in Alaska Native languages. He is a past recipient of Doyon Foundation scholarships.

“I have always been intrigued by the use of language to communicate,” says Paul, who is tribal administrator for the Nulato Tribal Council.

Paul’s earliest memories include time spent with his grandmother, Maria Nikoli, who spoke only Koyukon Athabascan and helped him gain a good foundation for understanding the language. His mother, uncles and aunts were instrumental in teaching the language.

“The Koyukon language is so interesting,” Paul says. “There are so many different ways to express yourself without saying too much.” For instance, when someone says “emaa,” the word may translate as “ouch” or “it hurts.” The same word may be used today as an idiom, meaning “I feel bum.” For health care providers who may be unfamiliar with Koyukon, its flexibility can be frustrating, Paul says.

As in other languages, some Koyukon words fall out of use. “Songs were made in the past using words even the fluent speakers sometimes don’t understand fully. There’s a certain amount of poetic license on the part of the songmaker,” Paul says.

Connecting words to form sentences was an important step in advancing his fluency. “I think a lot of people know lots of words and what they mean, but what they lack is how to form complete sentences. Repetition was a really good way to learn,” he says.

To remain active in language learning, Paul takes part in a Native singing and dance group based in Nulato. The dance group is sponsored by Nulato Tribal Council in partnership with Andrew K. Demoski School. In his role as tribal administrator, Paul is supportive of a Nulato Tribal Council project to re-translate workbooks into the Lower Koyukon dialect. But as Native language speakers are being lost to old age, he knows that among the biggest challenges to language learning is a lack of people available to speak with and learn from.

“It’s really difficult,” he says. “I’m so proud of Doyon Foundation for its work with our languages.”

Paul plans to continue working with the Native dance group, which includes members as young as 8 years old, to develop their understanding of the meaning behind songs. “It’s so entertaining to help them,” he says. “I’d also like to help as they grow older and learn to make songs themselves.”

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for Holikachuk, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Benhti Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Hän, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Deg Xinag, Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Nee’anděg’ (Tanacross) and Née’aaneegn’ (Upper Tanana). The project officially launched in summer 2019 with the first four courses, now available for free to all interested learners.

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.

About Language Champions

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.