Oline (far left), her granddaughter Stephanie in the middle, and Teresa Hanson

Oline (far left) with her granddaughter, Stephanie (middle), and Teresa Hanson

Born in the Athabascan community of Nikolai, Oline Petruska is a Doyon Foundation language champion committed to speaking and writing Dinak’i, the language of Alaska Native people of the upper Kuskokwim River. Oline is a daughter of Miska and Anna Alexia, and a granddaughter of Alex and Lena Alexia, all of Nikolai.

From 1961 to 1963, Oline attended Mount Edgecumbe High School, the Sitka-based residential school attracting primarily Alaska Native students from around the state. In 1969, she joined VISTA, the Kennedy-era national service program aimed at alleviating poverty, and served as a preschool and adult basic education teacher in Nikolai.

Oline’s family includes her daughter, Shirley, of Nikolai; brother, Mike, of Anchorage; and granddaughter, Stephanie, of Nikolai. All are studying Dinak’i through Doyon Foundation’s Doyon Languages Online project, which offers free access to online courses in Alaska Native languages spoken throughout the Doyon region. Doyon Foundation officially launched Doyon Languages Online in summer 2019 with the release of the first four courses in Gwich’inDenaakk’eBenhti Kenaga’ and Holikachuk.

A visitor dropping by is likely to find Oline busy with her language lessons, turning Dinak’i written words into sentences describing the world around her. “I know the language,” she says, “but I want to learn to write it, so that kids in the future will have something to learn by. I’ve always had a desire to see people learn and get ahead.”

Motivating her own learning are childhood memories of her grandmother and mother, making their way in a world where sled dog teams ran the mail trail through Nikolai and her mother worked at a local roadhouse. “It brings back memories of mom and grandma, talking a long time ago,” Oline says of her own efforts to speak and write the Dinak’i language.

As a little girl attending school in Nikolai, Oline recalls being punished for speaking her language. “I had no interest in writing or speaking (Dinak’i) until just about a year ago. It just takes me to make up my mind to do something,” she says with a laugh. She enrolled in lessons through Doyon Foundation and has been working steadily with the goal of writing in Dinak’i.

“I’m constantly writing words down – words that I think are cool – and after a while I’ll write a sentence. It’s been exciting to learn,” she says. A recent afternoon had Oline observing the changing seasons: In Dinak’i she wrote, It’s windy and the leaves are falling. 

Consulting a dictionary helps. So does persistence. Oline says that compared with English, written words in Dinak’i can seem very long. Even an everyday word like “sewing” can send Oline to the dictionary to check her translation. “I still have trouble figuring out how to write some words,” she says. “I enjoy the challenge.”

A chance to work with schoolchildren last year convinced her that language revitalization efforts belong in the elementary-grade classrooms. She recalls two children – a fourth grader and fifth grader – so ready to learn that they acquired Dinak’i surprisingly fast. “More people will take the language once it gets into the classrooms, and especially with the young ones,” Oline says. “That’s my hope.”

Doyon Language Online develops 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).

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.

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 foundation@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.