language champion


“The more I learn and get to converse with Elders, the more I feel fulfilled and connected to community”

Annauk Olin, Language Champion

Aŋayuqaaka Nuluqutaaġlu Mark Pollock-lu. Ataataaka Koonuglu Nugaġlu. Annauk Olin is the daughter of Maggie and Mark Pollock. Annauk’s maternal grandparents are Elizabeth and Herbie Nayokpuk. Her paternal grandparents are Rose Marie and David Pollock. Annauk’s mother’s family is from Shishmaref and her father’s family originally is from France and Scotland.

A fluency coach and curriculum writer living in Anchorage, Annauk attended the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and a master’s degree in linguistics. Her main language is Iñupiaq (Shishmaref and North Slope dialects); Annauk is learning Denaakk’e (Koyukon) with her husband’s family.

Doyon Foundation: Congratulations on your recent graduation from MITILI, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Indigenous Language Initiative. What was the program like? How does it fit into your efforts today?

Annauk Olin: The MITLI program offers a formal study of theoretical linguistics alongside an independent study of an Indigenous language. I would encourage Alaska Native language learners to apply. I was able to study syntax, phonology (the systems of sounds within a language), language acquisition, and second- and third-language acquisition.

Uqautchiq Iñupiatun kiŋuvaanaktaaksrautikput. The Iñupiaq language is our birthright. Language learning is the center of my life because it will inform our generation and next generations about who we are as a people spiritually and culturally. Right now, I’m contracting with school districts and colleges to teach immersion methods, to develop curriculum, and to work as a fluency coach.

DF: You believe that language is medicine.

AO: Yes. Revitalizing endangered languages is hard. Yet the more I learn and get to converse with Elders, the more I feel fulfilled and connected to community. Language may be difficult to access now but the more available we make it for future generations, the more spiritually and culturally grounded they will become.

I speak to my 2-year-old son primarily in Iñupiaq and he inspires me to continue building my knowledge. His name, Daał, means “sandhill crane” in Denaakk’e. My husband is Koyukon Athabascan so we’re integrating more Denaakk’e language at home. After marrying into an Athabascan family, I feel a responsibility to help my son learn his Denaakk’e language too.

DF: And your own beginnings with language learning? Who helped along the way?

AO: My mom taught Iñupiaq immersion in Utqiaġvik when I was very young. Although she did not speak to me in Iñupiaq primarily, her love of our language stayed with me my whole life.

Dr. Edna Ahgeak MacLean, the Elder who worked to complete the North Slope Iñupiaq dictionary among many other learning materials, taught me to be a conversational speaker of North Slope Iñupiaq through an adapted master-apprenticeship over the last four years. Georgianne Oonak Merrill taught me much of what I know of my family’s Shishmaref Inupiaq dialect through translation work with the Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AKPIRG). Ronald Aniqsuaq Brower taught me Iñupiaq through stories and grammar at Iḷisaġvik College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Many other Elders and friends have helped me sustain Iñupiaq language speaking and learning. My graduate work in linguistics has allowed me to study existing linguistics material on Bering Strait and Malimiut Iñupiaq dialects. I hope to create grammars and curricula for Iñupiaq dialects with limited learning materials.

DF: The master-apprenticeship program – MAP – is grounded in traditional one-on-one teaching and also takes into account that Indigenous languages may not be spoken much in the home. MAP seems very promising for Alaska Native language revitalization.

AO: A few master-apprenticeship relationships exist, but the method is fairly new to Iñupiat Nunaat. I hope to create introductory materials for an Iñupiaq Master-Apprenticeship Program. Curriculum and a supportive network are critical for its success. Once they’re in place, graduating Iñupiaq speakers from a MAP and placing them in an Iñupiaq immersion school is our best shot at passing on the fluency of Iñupiaq to future generations.

DF: How has a MAP approach worked for you?

AO: Master-apprenticeship techniques have encouraged me to speak primarily in Iñupiaq to Elders, especially with Dr. MacLean. I call our apprenticeship adapted because my speaking was heavily supported through studying grammatical materials and Iñupiaq stories.

I also used self-written Iñupiaq conversations before each apprenticeship meeting as a springboard for learning about related topics. For each meeting with Dr. MacLean, I would record our conversations and listen to repeatedly while going for walks, cooking or cleaning. I also write flashcards for different verb endings and put them all over my house. Sometimes I’ll memorize endings while I’m doing another household activity.

DF: Language learning isn’t compartmentalized then.

AO: Effective language learning and speaking is a meditative practice for me. In addition to recorded conversations, my son and I try to listen each week to recorded Iñupiaq stories. We write or draw while we listen.

Ritualizing language is so important, so I pray every night in Iñupiaq and usually wake my son up with Iñupiaq songs in the morning. Creating videos of everyday activities can help others learn and internalize language too. While reading and writing have been helpful to learning Iñupiaq, listening has probably been the most important for becoming a speaker.

DF: Language learners so often say it’s important to be part of a group, to be with others who are also committed to the same goal.

AO: I’m fortunate to be a member of Iḷisiqativut, a grassroots Iñupiaq language learning collective for adult second-language learners. Many of my dear friends are also dedicated to language learning so we build on each other for support. We’ve hosted two-week Iñupiaq language intensives in all three regions of Iñupiat Nunaat. My main role at Iḷisiqativut was to facilitate immersion trainings and to write immersion curriculum.

In 2019, I started working with the Alaska Public Interest Research Group to translate census material into the Shishmaref Iñupiaq dialect. Most materials available for self-study are in the North Slope Iñupiaq dialect, so working with AKPIRG is a chance to use my knowledge of another dialect to learn my family’s way of speaking. The AKPIRG group I’m with includes speakers from the Bering Strait Iñupiaq dialect. We’ve worked together to translate materials about the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 vaccination.

DF: What advice do you have for language learners, especially those who may find starting out is really challenging?

AO: Don’t let anything distract you from learning language. We need to think creatively about how to bring Iñupiaq into all the places where English is currently used.

DF: It sounds as if your efforts draw on several foundations – two Alaska Native languages and a formal study of linguistics, which we associate with Western scholarship.

AO: Learning Iñupiaq is connected deeply to my heart and emotions. When I first started learning to speak, I navigated many feelings of anxiety and depression, which are directly related to the ongoing Euro-American settler-colonial project.

Relationships between our Elder and younger generations have been severed, so that when it comes to speaking our Indigenous languages those ties need healing and regeneration. Without creating a way to process this trauma, it can become incredibly daunting and frustrating to learn our languages.

Sometimes people have shamed me for speaking a different dialect from my family or for learning linguistics, which is through the lens of Western education. Don’t forget that our ancestors spoke many dialects before colonization and that we can use both Indigenous and Western tools to give us a better shot at sustaining our languages.

DF: How are these insights shaping your day-to-day progress?

AO: When I feel over my head in learning, I often have to take breaks and enjoy things like reading literature, being outside, or working with my hands. I also try to facilitate time in our learning community to process intergenerational trauma. An Elder once told me that we need to heal together and not try to navigate these feelings alone.

DF: That returns us to the idea that language learning is a birthright.

AO: Bringing our languages outside the classroom and into our homes and on the land is important. We can list all the reasons why it may feel impossible to learn our languages, or we can list all the ways we will actively and concretely reclaim our language.

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for 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 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 the Language Champion Profile Series

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.

‘If you’re interested in learning your language, then begin today’

A speaker and instructor of Gwich’in at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Hishinlai’ Peter is the daughter of Katherine Peter of Stevens Village and Steven Peter of Arctic Village. Her grandparents are Soozan and Peter Shajol of Arctic Village. Hishinlai’s family includes her husband, Jeff Currey; daughters, Francine Kazenoff and Hannah Sikorski; and four grandchildren.

Hishinlai’ graduated from UAF where she earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction, and a doctorate in applied linguistics for her dissertation that explored the relationship between Gwich’in adult language learning and identity development. She lives in Fairbanks.

Hishinlai’ Peter’s commitment to Gwich’in is far reaching: From teaching the language to university students and working on a Gwich’in dictionary, to annotating traditional stories and providing translations for voting materials and to promote public health during the pandemic, Hishinlai’s work demonstrates the ways that language defines a person’s core.

“Language is the root of your identity,” she says. “If you’re interested in learning your language, then begin today. You don’t need a classroom or money. And you don’t need to sound perfect.”

A key figure in her own learning is Lillian Garnett, an Elder from Arctic Village and noted contributor to linguistic materials and story collections published in Gwich’in.

Gwich’in is among Arctic Indigenous languages in the Doyon region that are a focus of revitalization, including a series of online courses offered through Doyon Foundation’s Doyon Languages Online project. In 2019, Hishinlai’ was a member of a Doyon Languages Online team that developed the Foundation’s online language-learning course in Gwich’in. The course is currently available for free to all interested language learners via the Doyon Foundation website.

Hishinlai’ is also a linguist who serves on the advisory board of Tanan Ch’at’oh, the language immersion nest in Fairbanks that enrolled a first group of toddlers 2021.

Hishinlai’ encourages students learning the language to let others know: “Learn how to say in the language, ‘Help me, how do we say….’ Let people know you’re trying.”

“Remember to stay positive,” she adds. “Use the humor that’s inherent in our cultures to learn or teach your language.” She advises students to find others who are at their fluency level and then learn together or to teach what they’ve already mastered.

Her plans include continuing to help children learn the language and developing course materials. When she started teaching at UAF in 2002, language courses were face to face before shifting to online in 2020 because of the virus pandemic. Hishinlai’ at first found it challenging to come up with interactive games to foster language learning. Students eventually worked together through worksheets, and Hishinlai’ developed card games for use in a student’s own environment. She went on to develop activities for teaching other languages, such as Yup’ik or Iñupiaq, that are not in the same language family as Dene.

A hurdle for many students whose first language is English is a tendency to default to English when attempting to speak in another language. Hishinlai’s advice to teachers: Keep speaking to students in the language without falling back on English. “Practice, determination and not being afraid to make mistakes are among the best learning techniques,” she says.

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for 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 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 the Language Champion Profile Series

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.

“The smile on an Elder’s face when they hear you speak is the best motivation!”

Rochelle Adams

Shoozhrì’ Rochelle Adams oozhįį. Gwichyaa Zhee ts’à’ Tseeduu diink’eedhat. Shiyehghan naįį Angela Peter-Mayo ts’à’ Cliff Adams goovoozhrì’. Shahan Gwichyaa Zhee gwats’an nilįį ts’à’ Shitì’ Tseeduu gwats’an nilįį. Shigii naįį Amaya, Koso Naazhrii ts’à’ Łeeyadaakhan goovoozhrì’. Shalak naįį łyâa gwiintł’oo gooveet’ihthan. Diinan ts’à’ diichuu haa diigwandaii nilii! Nihłaa narilzhii nan vak’aiirinyaa. Chihłak tr’inlii! Mahsì’ choo Shalak naįį! It’ee.

Rochelle Adams is the daughter of Angela Peter-Mayo of Fort Yukon and the late Cliff Adams, Jr. of Beaver. Her maternal grandparents are the late Susie Lord Peter of Nenana and Fort Yukon and Johnny Peter, Sr. of Fort Yukon. Rochelle’s paternal grandparents are Hanna “Babe” Adams and the late Clifford Adams, Sr.

Rochelle’s children are Amaya, Koso and Leeyadaakhan. Her heritage language is Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in).

A member of Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization committee, Rochelle Adams is committed to language learning and teaching, especially in ways that involve art to develop materials and content. She serves as a cultural adviser to Molly of Denali, the award-winning animated PBS television series and the first children’s programming of its kind to feature an Alaska Native character in the title role.

Rochelle studied design at the Institute of American Indian Arts and holds a bachelor’s degree with a focus on Native art and languages from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). She is pursuing a master’s degree in applied linguistics at UAF with an emphasis on Native language education.

Rochelle is the Indigenous engagement director for Native Peoples Action, an Anchorage-based advocacy group whose mission is to align the knowledge, values and ways of being of Alaska Native people with regulatory and governing policies that affect daily life. She lives in Anchorage. 

Doyon Foundation: Congratulations on your work with Molly of Denali, recently renewed for a second season. How did the program find you? What does a cultural adviser like you do to help Molly be successful?

Rochelle Adams: I was invited to join as a cultural bearer because of my work in language and culture in my region and also statewide. In the beginning, the cultural advisors really shaped the world of Molly. We envisioned who she was and who her family and community were. Now we advise on all levels of production to tell authentic Alaska stories. We do this out of love and to carry our traditional values from our communities.

It’s exciting that children are growing up in a world where Molly, a young Alaska Native person, shares her stories and adventures. It really brings Indigenous people to the forefront. We get to reset some of those stereotypes and misconceptions. It means so much to me to be a part of this!

DF: Language learning and teaching seem like a natural extension of your upbringing in a traditional Athabascan lifestyle, following the Yukon River seasons of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Who comes to mind as you think about your own language learning?

RA: My grandfathers on both sides of my family were the strongest language speakers and then my grandparents before them. My parents were from the generation that did not speak the language, but they understood a lot. I’m also grateful to my bilingual teachers, including Mary Fields, when I was in grade school.

Language connects me to my people, my community, my place and my ancestors. It’s the tie that connects our long line of culture to a place. It’s our core.

DF: Learning from Elders is one of the things that heritage language learners say they really treasure. Why do you think that is?

RA: Speaking with Elders as often as I can is among the best techniques to learn the language. There’s nothing like the smile and look on an Elder’s face when they hear you speak! It’s the best motivation.

Practice in as many ways as I can has really helped me learn. Reading our stories and listening to recordings have really helped me. Finding every resource and being on this journey of teaching and learning have been so fulfilling.

DF: Readers will know you from your statewide efforts on language advocacy as an aspect of inclusion. To name just a few, you’ve helped to mobilize the Alaska Native vote, promote safety and getting vaccinated during the pandemic, and joined Indigenous-language efforts to see that the Census reaches Alaska Native people. And, in 2019, you helped lead a panel at a language-learning weekend sponsored by Doyon Foundation. How do these efforts fit into your commitment to the Gwich’in language?

RA: I advocate for the language in as many spaces as possible. I enjoy facilitating language panels that do translation and messaging for education purposes. I teach where I can and always find ways to learn.

I really love working with my home region of the Yukon Flats and building Gwich’in content with our local Elders, speakers, educators and language learners. Some of my projects with Elders center on art and traditional activities so that I may learn them and document them to pass on cultural knowledge. I love sharing these resources and uplifting the language in any way I can!

DF: What ideas do you have to practice the language?

RA: The biggest challenge has been to practice with fluent speakers, to use the language. I overcome this by speaking with my children. It’s a great way to teach what I know. And when you teach, you learn – one reinforces the other. I also use social media to practice with fluent speakers and knowledge holders. I use books, videos and audio, and I search out speakers for face-to-face practice.

I want to learn the original place names in Alaska and I ask a lot of questions. I do land acknowledgments that honor the original people whose lands I’m on. I seek the knowledge of place.

DF: You’re guided by an awareness that you’re an Elder in training. How does your commitment to language learning, teaching and advocacy fit in?

RA: I plan to share as I learn. I plan to continue all the work I’m doing now to help grow, support and encourage the next generation of language learners and teachers.

Language is a very important part of who we are and it’s also vital to the health and wellness of our lands and waters. Embedded in our language is an understanding of the need to be good stewards of our homes and all that live alongside us, our fish, bird and animal relatives.

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for 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 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 the Language Champion Profile Series

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.

“There is no greater joy than watching children have fun learning their language”

Susan Paskvan se’ooze’ dehoon Denaakk’e hełde K’etsoo seeznee. Sedełnekkaa Eliza yeł Benedict Jones, Sr. hebe’ooze’. Eenaa’e bedełnekkaa setsoo kkaa Josie yeł Little Peter yeł hegheelaa’ee. Eetaa’e bedełnekkaa setsoo kkaa Jessie yeł Harry Jones yeł Andrew Edwin yeł hegheelaa’ee. Toneedze gheltseełne hʉt’aan eslaanh. Meneelghaadze T’oh hʉts’e tsaadaanslet ts’uh Fairbanks lesdo. Seyełledoyee Steve Paskvan. Keel kkaa neeteehne hoolaanh. Jason yeł Adam yeł hebe’ooze’. Denaakk’e yeł Benhti Kokht’ana Kenaga’ hedohʉdege’eeh dehoon hedok’ʉhdeł’eeghenh eslaanh.

My name is Susan Paskvan while in Denaakk’e they call me K’etsoo. My parents are Benedict and Eliza Jones. My mom’s parents are my late grandparents Josie and Little Peter. My dad’s parents are my late grandparents Jessie Edwin and late grandfathers Harry Jones and Andrew Edwin. I am of the Middle of the Stream Clan. I am from Koyukuk but live in Fairbanks. My husband is Steve Paskvan. We have two sons. Their names are Jason and Adam. I am learning Denaakk’e and Benhti while I am also a language teacher.

K’etsoo Susan Paskvan is the Native language coordinator for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District (YKSD), comprising a correspondence program and 10 village schools that dot the Yukon, Koyukuk and Tanana river systems. A Doyon Foundation scholarship recipient, Susan graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is pursuing a master’s degree at UAF in linguistics and Alaska Native languages. She was awarded a shareholder of the year award from Doyon, Limited and the Alaska Federation of Natives for dedication to heritage languages.

The YKSD serves an area larger than Washington state and encompasses three Alaska Native languages: Denaakk’e, Denaakk’a and Inupiaq. Eight village schools are off the road system. Virtually all children enrolled in the village schools are Athabascan. Susan’s languages are Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana) and Denaakk’e (Koyukon).

Doyon Foundation: How did your language learning begin? How did it become your life’s work?

K’etsoo Susan Paskvan: When I was growing up, we learned household words and phrases – nok’eedonh for “time to eat,” and onee’ “come here.” Then at UAF I took two years of language classes with my mother, so I gained a lot of vocabulary and a strong foundation in the grammar of our language. In 1999, I started as an apprentice with Madeline Williams and my sole job was to learn Denaakk’e with her for two years. I learned how to listen and to practice though my ear instead of writing things down all the time.

I led a summer institute for three years at UAF for teachers and that led to my YKSD job in 2003. I work with a language team, including teachers and Elders, and develop curriculum based on what the team wants the children to learn. The team decided what the children should learn to say in both Denaakk’e and Benhti for the workbook that we developed. I teach classes in 18 different classrooms across the YKSD region. Before pandemic restrictions, I traveled to each of the 10 village schools at least once every semester.

DF: You’re also committed to language beyond the classroom. How did that come about?

KSP: My hope is to get language revitalization going in the community, within tribes and with parents. With only 30 minutes a day for language learning in the classroom, it’d take a long time to become fluent.

I’ve learned that adults want to know at least two things: How to introduce themselves in the language and how to sing the traditional memorial songs. The songs are composed to honor a deceased loved one and sung at a memorial potlatch. Some of the old songs have “high language,” full of poetry, riddles and metaphors. Instead of saying, “He was a good hunter,” the song might say, “He laid down his bow and arrow here,” alluding to the place where he camped and hunted.

Memorial songs are meant to lift you up. It’s a great source of cultural pride when people can sing their traditional songs. To help with that, I’ve done workshops in the villages to get those songs recorded, transcribed and translated. We have a nice collection and hope someday to publish a songbook. I’ve also made the audio files available and digitized them for CDs.

DF: So much of your dedication stems from the work of your mother, Eliza Jones, the University of Alaska teacher of Denaakk’e, and your aunt, Madeline Williams of Hughes, the Tanana Chiefs Conference teacher whom you apprenticed with. What is the role of venerated Elders like your mother and aunt in language learning today?

KSP: The Elders have always told me, “Never give up.” They understand that passing on the language depends on people being encouraged to pick it up. “Never give up” means recognizing that the biggest challenge is in finding learners. And for those learners, it means having enough time.

I think what’s meant by “never give up” is a recognition that learning takes a motivated person who’s passionate about the language and accepts that the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.

DF: You’re saying that students must learn to accept mistakes.

KSP: Yes. I’ve made mistakes and I’ll continue to make mistakes. I’m always learning spelling! But you just have to keep going.

Some of the reluctance, I think, among people in their 60s and 70s comes from boarding school experience when students were punished for speaking their language. They need healing. Gauging a person’s readiness to learn the language is part of the challenge. Learning can be very difficult if teaching isn’t done in a way where it feels safe to make mistakes.

DF: A goal you’ve set for yourself is to become fluent in Denaakk’e. What are attributes of fluency? How does your study of linguistics fit in?

KSP: Linguistics is a scientific way of understanding every aspect of language, including meaning and use. If I’m meeting with language speakers and we’re talking about tanning furs and if I have some kind of linguistics then I understand how context could help me figure out the names of things like tools, fur, membrane and the actions that people are taking.

Being able to pray in the language, to compose songs in the language — these are top-level fluency skills. I’m not there yet, but mother is. She’s 83 and we talk several times a week. I’m a language teacher, but I’m also learning. I encourage people to just start small, to have success with what you’re learning and practice with people, and then just keep adding on.

My mother’s first language was Denaakk’e. She was born in Cut-Off and traveled with her family to different camps. The family moved to Fairbanks in 1970 where she started her work with linguist Michael Krauss, then director of UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center. The linguists had all these questions for my mother and when she’d ask, “What are you working on?” they’d say iterative grammar or another technical aspect of language. Then she’d have them teach her too. Iteration refers to the structure of a verb.

She learned all that. She became a linguist herself while working with speakers throughout the region, documenting their stories and genealogy and place names. She worked 20 years at UAF to document Denaakk’e and in 2000, she shared authorship on the Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary with the Rev. Jules Jetté who began work on the dictionary draft when he came to Alaska in 1898.

DF: Now that’s an example of never giving up.

KSP: Because of all the language and knowledge that Elders have shared with me over the years, because of my mother’s work at UAF, I have a responsibility to pass this knowledge on. I read every day in Denaakk’e, I lead video-conference teaching sessions. It’s a matter of carrying on my mother’s work.

DF: You believe that language learning is a way of being shaped by the culture. What’s an example that comes to mind?

KSP: When you learn your language, you really get grounded. When I teach our origin stories and songs, students learn our beliefs about birds and animals and plants.

In a Zoom group recently we were talking about feelings. We were learning phrases — “I feel tired, I feel happy, I feel sad.” Then we came to ebaa. It means “ouch” or “I’m sick,” but we also teach young students not to say this word because we don’t want them to grow up complaining about a lot of aches and pains. That’s just one example of learning culture through the language.

DF: Where is your commitment to language learning leading you? What’s on the horizon?

KSP: In addition to becoming fluent in Denaakk’e, I would really like to develop a community digital archive of the language. My goal is to get the stories, songs, etc. that are in audio files and make it useable by language learners.  And I want to have an institute to start an immersion school for children. There really is no greater joy than watching children have fun learning their language.

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for 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 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 the Language Champion Profile Series

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.

Language is what grounds me”

Born in Fairbanks, Tristan Madros is the son of Franklin Madros, Jr. and Cora McGinty Madros. Tristan’s paternal grandparents are Franklin Madros, Sr. and Anna Ruben Madros. Maternal grandparents are Sebastian McGinty, Sr. and Eva Neglaska McGinty. Tristan’s family includes Martina Ekada, an aunt who raised him for most of his childhood. 

Tristan lives in Kaltag, the Yukon River community in Koyukon Athabascan territory, roughly 300 miles west of Fairbanks. He graduated from Andrew K. Demoski School, a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in Nulato. His Alaska Native language is Denaakk’e (Koyukon).

A content creator with Doyon Languages Online, Tristan Madros knows that singing traditional songs and listening as Elders speak the language — along with persevering — are key to becoming more assured in his Denaakk’e language. 

“The biggest challenge was having to record (for Doyon Languages Online) when I didn’t feel confident enough. I overcame that with encouragement from Elders and other speakers,” he said. 

Today he’s among speakers helping to revitalize Alaska Native languages of the Doyon region by providing content available as free, online lessons through the Doyon Foundation website. “Thank you so much, Doyon Languages Online, for the wonderful work that you do,” he said. 

In addition to contributing to Doyon Languages Online, Tristan encourages language learning by introducing Denaakk’e vocabulary and songs to the next generation, including his nieces and nephews. His teachers have included Elders in Kaltag and Nulato and K’etsoo’ (Susan Paskvan), the Native language coordinator with the Yukon-Kuskokwim School District.

Tristan’s goal is to become fluent. “Language is important to me because it’s ours, our people’s, it’s what grounds me,” he said. “I think I always felt that there was something missing until I started learning our language. Then I felt whole.”

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for 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 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.

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.

We have to start”

– Verna Hagen, Language Champion

Verna Hagen is a daughter of the late Walter Sanford and Laura Isaac Sanford of Chistochina and Tanacross, respectively. Her maternal grandparents are the late Titus and Annie Isaac of Lake Mansfield and Tanacross, respectively. Her maternal uncle, Chief Andrew Isaac, is remembered for his role in successfully arguing for land rights of Alaska Native people.

A lifelong resident of Tanacross and Tok, Verna is a 21-year employee of Tanana Chiefs Conference as an alternate resource coordinator. Her Alaska Native language is Tanacross, an ancestral language of people in the upper Tanana River region. Verna lives in Tok.

At 67 and looking forward to retirement, Verna Hagen is considering the past as she plans for a future that includes seeing the Native language of Tanacross return to everyday use. It’s a goal that follows in the efforts of her mother, Laura Isaac Sanford, a fluent Tanacross speaker who passed away in 2010.

“I learned a lot from her,” Verna said. “She was my mentor.”

A respected Elder and gifted storyteller in Tanacross and English, Laura Sanford’s contributions include helping to document the Tanacross language in texts such as the Tanacross Learners’ Dictionary and Tanacross Phrase and Conversation Lessons. Laura also worked on an in-progress collection of stories.

Verna is inspired by her mother’s commitment to the language, which ranged from taking part in University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) classes and workshops to sitting with friends in her kitchen to practice speaking Tanacross. Born in Dihthâad (Mansfield) and raised in traditions of the Mansfield-Ketchumstuck bands, Laura was revered for her knowledge of the old ways, stemming from a childhood spent on the land.

A recipient of Doyon Foundation scholarships, Verna completed online language courses through UAF and enrolled in Tanacross language classes held in Tok through UAF. Her instructor, Irene Arnold, is among authors of the Learners’ Dictionary, a community-based project with English entry words and nearly 4,500 Tanacross words, including example sentences and clickable links. Among Verna’s goals is to see the Learners’ Dictionary available in Tok-area classrooms.

Tasks in her language courses included making recordings of Elders as they spoke in Tanacross and contributing those recordings to the Alaska Native Language Archive at UAF. Verna sat with her mother, gathering audio and video in 2002 as Laura Sanford spoke Tanacross and told ancestral stories.

Verna’s plans include honoring those efforts, especially as she considers next steps to encourage her community to put the Tanacross language to use in everyday life. “We have to start doing that,” she said.

Verna makes time to speak Tanacross with her aunt, Isabelle John of Tanacross; her sister, Elizabeth Webb of Tok; and a cousin, Rose Benson of Tanacross and Chicago. Several Tanacross and Tok speakers are fluent, Verna said, and she’s eager to resume recordings to expand the pool of Elders whose Tanacross speaking and storytelling are preserved.

“Our Elders are leaving us and we need to preserve the language,” Verna said. “The language is what we’re all about. That’s why we need to get it to the children.” Helping teach the language to schoolchildren is among her retirement goals.

She credits language-learning workshops organized in Tok by Doyon Foundation with attracting good attendance, including people from neighboring communities. “I would love to see more language classes here in Tok and more Doyon workshops,” she said.

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. 

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.

“The biggest challenge is to grow Denaakk’e teachers”

Hᵾkk’aaghneestaatlno Lorraine David is the daughter of the late Joe and Celia Beetus of Hughes. Her paternal grandparents are the late Little Beetus and Ida of Hughes; her maternal grandparents are the late Jimmy and Annie Koyukuk of Allakaket. 

Lorraine and her husband, Richard David of Allakaket, have five children: Tillila Beetus, Leonard Bergman, Shara Shewfelt, Richard (RJ) David, Jr., and the late Sharon David. Lorraine and Richard have 12 grandchildren (nine grandsons and three granddaughters). Lorraine’s siblings include sisters Alberta Vent, Helen Attla, Dorothy Vent, June Walker and Peggy Patterson; brothers Bob Beetus, Sam Beetus and Wilmer Beetus; and the late Arlo Beetus and the late Jimmy Beetus. 

A recipient of Doyon Foundation scholarships, Lorraine attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in human resource management and is employed by the Fairbanks Native Association, where she directs the Indigenous Language Project. Lorraine’s language is Denaakk’e (Koyukon)

Doyon Foundation: Family has played an important role in your language learning. How has that background helped shape your commitment to Denaakk’e teaching and learning?

Hukk’aaghneestaatlno Lorraine David: My father and mother, Joe and Celia Beetus, and Elders Julia Oldman and Maria Dummy from Hughes and Catherine Attla from Huslia were instrumental in teaching me to speak Denaakk’e. It was my first language — I wasn’t introduced to English until I was 6 years old. 

When children are grounded in their language, culture and traditions, they have a sense of belonging and are more academically inclined. They’ll be proud of where they came from and who they are. If I can help one child live a good healthy life, I will have fulfilled my dream. 

DF: You’re an accomplished, lifelong teacher. What’s a language learning strategy that successful students tend to have in common?

HLD: Speak the language as much as you can. 

DF: You’ve devoted much of your time to developing activities where people may do just that. 

HLD: When I worked at UAF for 30 years, I taught Denaakk’e to college students in the evenings for six of those years. At Anne Wien Elementary School in Fairbanks, I created a Denaakk’e classroom that completed its third year in 2020. There are two primary teachers and one classroom aide; I teach them to teach the language to 3 to 5 year olds. 

I was involved with the Denaakk’e Hᵾdelnekkaa language group for parents and other adults and I taught the language part time for two years at Effie Kokrine Charter School in Fairbanks. I helped with “Molly of Denali” by translating and recording Denaakk’e words and phrases. (“The Molly of Denali” series aired in 2019 and was the first-ever TV show to feature an Alaska Native child as protagonist.)

Whenever anyone wants to know how to say and write a word or phrase, I help by making and sending a recording. As long as I’m able, I’ll help whoever wants to learn to keep our language alive. 

DF: That’s a substantial legacy. What’s on your mind as you look ahead?

HLD: I’m nearing retirement age soon so someone else needs to take over. The biggest challenge is to grow Denaakk’e teachers. I’m fortunate to have the same staff for the past year — they’re learning the language and learning to teach. But staff turnover is a challenge.

Getting parents and other community members involved, hopefully in a future language school, will help grow teachers to teach Alaska Native languages. Doyon Foundation is doing an amazing job in creating resources for Alaska Native languages. Keep it up!

DF: You’ve mentioned the importance of recordings in Denaakk’e.                 

HLD: I never used to record the language because our belief was that if you record your voice, you’re giving away your spirit. I spoke to my mom about it before she passed and she gave me permission to record. Nowadays I record as much as I can for whoever wants to learn. 

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.

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.

My language is my worldview”

An assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Polly Hyslop is of Dineh (Athabascan)-Scottish heritage from Northway and her language is Née’aaneegń (Upper Tanana). Polly is the daughter of Polly (Demit) Hyslop of Northway and Floyd Hyslop of Roscommon, Michigan. Her maternal grandparents are Bertha (Johnny) Demit-Sinyon of Yukon, Canada (Upper Tanana River region), and Elijah Demit of Ketchumstock in the Upper Tanana region. Pollys paternal grandparents are Elizabeth Hyslop and Thomas Hyslop. Her son, Benjamin Schwartz, lives in Reno, Nevada. 

Polly is a graduate of UAF and holds a bachelors degree in journalism, a masters degree in justice and a doctorate in Indigenous studies. A past recipient of Doyon Foundation scholarships, Polly is a faculty member at the Center for Cross Cultural Studies at UAF. 

Polly Hyslop is among Doyon Online Language volunteers helping to develop lessons for free, self-paced instruction in Upper Tanana language. A noted scholar whose interests include the teaching of Indigenous peacemaking practices, Polly researched restorative justice in rural Alaska for publication in 2016 in the Alaska Journal of Dispute Resolution. She is co-author of a book chapter on Tlingit Elder Harold Gatensby and his contributions to the practice of the Peacemaking Circle in Kake. 

The Née’aaneegń language is fundamental to her understanding of how ancestors thought and viewed the world and the universe.

“I create space daily to practice speaking my language. My language is my worldview,” she said. Instrumental to her language learning are Polly’s grandmother, Bertha (Johnny) Demit-Sinyon, and Paul Milanowski, Avis Sam, Sherry Barnes and Laura Sanford. 

Polly hosts Zoom meetings with Upper Tanana language learners and teachers, and works with other language-keepers to plan summer language camps at Northway. She is involved with Head Start on a language nest, the immersion method for language revitalization in early childhood education. She has developed language literacy classes for teachers and students, and hopes to contribute to the Upper Tanana Northway dictionary. Plans also call for work on digital libraries to document the knowledge and language of local Alaska Native people. 

“The greatest challenge is to find Upper Tanana speakers to talk to,” Polly said. “Next greatest is making time to learn the language.

“Other language groups have been revived,” she said, noting success in Hawaii where Indigenous languages are heard in stores and schools. “We will need to work hard to bring our language back into everyday conversation.”

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.

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.

Language is a proactive, powerful way to stay connected to your identity and culture”

– Renee Linton

Renee Linton is the daughter of Peggy Nicholas of Fairbanks and granddaughter of Harriet (Maillelle) Nicholas of Anchorage and Wilbert Nicholas, Sr. Renee’s mother and grandparents originally are from Holikachuk, also known as Grayling. Renee’s family includes two sisters, Andrea Clemens and Melanie Bienek, both of Fairbanks, and a brother, Lawrence Jerod Dunlop, serving with the Marines in California.

Renee acknowledges the encouragement of her uncles, Gary Nicholas, Wilbert Nicholas, Jr., Nick Nicholas, Sr. and Eric Nicholas, all of Anchorage, and her late uncle, David Nicholas. “My mother was a single parent,” Renee recalled, “and at one time or another all of my uncles took the role of a positive adult male figure in my life.”

Renee attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is a rural economic specialist with Tanana Chiefs Conference. Her language is Holikachuk, an Athabaskan language spoken in Holikachuk on the Innoko River.

Doyon Foundation: Your perspective on language learning encourages people to just start — to not wait for a perfect time.

RL: We have today and tomorrow — yesterday is already gone. Right now is the best time to be proactive in learning and teaching your traditional language.

We do not want our language to disappear. Speak up and promote whatever language you or your family identify. Tell the world that our goal and our passion is to keep our language alive and strong.

DF: What are some memories of learning Holikachuk?

RL: My Uncle Eric, my mother’s youngest brother, helped raise my sister and me, and he was an amazing storyteller. He taught us a few words and made us proud to be who we are. He helped us stay connected to traditional knowledge while we grew up in Fairbanks.

Looking back, I wish I had put more effort into learning the language when I was younger. I think it would have been easier to remember words and phrases in elementary or middle school.

DF: How do you stay involved in your language? What activities do you recommend?

RL: To keep language alive and vivid, it’s important to work it into your everyday life. People who are active on social media could start sharing words and phrases so they’ll start looking more familiar and less daunting. Post, tweet, Snap and Insta your favorite words, quotes, poems or phrases. Encourage others to do the same.

I like looking up words in the dictionary and I like to read traditional stories printed in both English and Athabascan. I’m starting to write poetry in Holikachuk. I find it’s a really healing and freeing practice that gives me strength to face everyday obstacles.

DF: You’re right — language learners need encouragement. Where should they look?

RL: I feel the need to make my ancestors proud by always trying my best, to be thankful for everything I have.

Language is a proactive, powerful way to stay connected to your identity and culture. It reminds me where my ancestors came from. It instills traditional values that I identify with.

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.

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.

172_DLO Language Champion Promotion_KARMA_FB-INLearning the Hän language has been my passion since I was 15”

Karma Ulvi is chief of the village of Eagle, a community occupied for thousands of years by the Hän people on the south bank of the Yukon River near Canada. Karma is the daughter of Bertha Paul of Eagle and Dana Ulvi of Walnut Creek, California, and Eagle. Karma’s maternal grandparents are Susie Paul of Old Crow and Louise Paul of Eagle; her paternal grandparents are Milton and Patricia Ulvi of Walnut Creek, California.

As she pursues her commitment to the Hän language, Karma acknowledges the language revitalization efforts of her mother, Bertha, a member of the Eagle Village Council, and Ethel Beck and Ruth Ridley, who are Karma’s aunts. “I love them all very much,” Karma said.

A community health practitioner who serves as chief of the village of Eagle, Karma Ulvi believes that when Alaska Native people speak and read their language, ties to tradition and culture grow stronger. She’s eager to have Hän language conversations with her mother and aunts because, as her mother likes to say, things are just so much funnier in Hän.

“They’ll teach me things when we’re together,” Karma said, noting that Ruth Ridley, her aunt, can read and write Hän. “Learning my Hän language has been my passion since I was 15 years old.”

In her role as village chief, Karma was awarded a grant from Hungwitchin Corp. in Eagle to develop projects for Hän language learning. In addition to a stakeholder meeting planned for August, Karma is at work on a literacy class to underscore her commitment to helping people learn to read and write Hän.

“I would love to learn the literacy aspect,” Karma said. “I believe this is the tool needed to open the language.”

With her mother and aunts, Karma has done recordings in Hän for Doyon Language Online, a project of Doyon Foundation. The project is developing introductory online lessons for Holikachuk; Denaakk’e (Koyukon); Benhti Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana); Hän; Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in); Deg Xinag; Denak’i (Upper Kuskokwim); Nee’anděg’ (Tanacross); and Née’aaneegn’ (Upper Tanana). Karma’s goals include working with Doyon Language Online to teach Hän.

She plans to combine time away from duties with the Eagle Village Council with leave from her work as a health aide to pursue grant writing to fund more outlets for people to speak, read and write Hän. And while grant writing and managing are a challenge, Karma wants to build on her ability to organize people and resources.

“I hope we can get everyone together and work together to save our language,” she said. “I’ve wanted to work with the language for so long. Now I’m finally in a place where I can.”

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 grants from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP).

About our Language Champion profile series

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.

172_DLO Language Champion Promotion_GeorgeHolly_FB-IN“Dina xiyo ngitlith: Our thoughts are powerful”

An artist and songwriter who grew up in Ts’eldahthnu (Soldotna) on the Kahtnu (Kenai) River, George Holly is a content coordinator with Doyon Languages Online whose learning is guided by the wisdom of Chief Peter John: “God has given us each a language to praise Him with.”

George’s parents are the late Joanne Holly of Holy Cross and the late George Holly, Sr., who came to Anchorage, Alaska, when he was 11, in 1951. George’s maternal grandparents are the late Nick and Nellie Demientieff of Holy Cross. Nellie Demientieff grew up in Anvik and together Nick and Nellie raised 10 children, including Sam Demientieff, Irene Catalone, Sugar Merculieff, Tiny Devlin and Lolly Demientieff.

George is the owner of Holly House, a guest house on the Kenai River. His language is Deg Xinag, the language of Alaska Native people of the Lower Yukon and Innoko Rivers.

Doyon Foundation: Take us back to early days of learning your language. Who and what inspires you?

George Holly: My first language teacher and mentor was Ellen Savage, wife of my grandpa’s first cousin, Pius Savage. I was 24 years old when Ellen taught me my first words. She took my hands into hers and told me to never let her words fall from me.

I learned from Ellen that language can be what she would call dinayetr — our breath — and what she’d refer to simply as the good life. I’ve learned that language is not only a vehicle of communication but a good work. It affirms community life, service and time-tested generational experience for good thought.

DF: In addition to providing learning units since joining Doyon Languages Online last year, you remain a diligent student of Deg Xinag. How do the two roles fit together?

GH: I’ve been learning my language for 25 years, sometimes through weekly distance education classes, sometimes listening to and studying the printed text of oral histories, and sometimes through university courses or language development institutes. In 1999 I moved to Shageluk, near Holy Cross in our cultural area of Western Alaska, to be nearer to speakers of Deg Xinag. I stayed nine months.

My teachers have included many Elders, among Deg Xit’an people and also Tlingit and Dena’ina people. I’m amazed to hear the same spirit of loving guidance in each. (When performing at Camai a few years back, I heard Yup’ik Elders speak to their dance groups backstage and was stunned to hear that same uplifting and ennobling speech there. We all share it.) The Elders pass down what they had learned about life from their own “old people” about community traditions and right living with the world.

DF: That seems like your main point — that language is much more than getting across our thoughts.

GH: Learning and speaking one’s language has the potential to open things inside you, connect you in untold ways to the prayers and hopes, joys and knowledge of those who came before.

DF: You stress the value of listening when it comes to language learning.

GH: Listening, doing activities in the language, being open to what’s being said — these have all helped me learn my language. And working with kids. “Going North Song” and “The Squirrel Love Song” and “Naqanaga” are some of the songs I’ve written being sung across the state and the Yukon Territory.

Growing up outside of my cultural region I didn’t take part in much of the ceremonial life of our community. But I’m Deg Xit’an — one of “the local people” — and I’ve joked that it means wherever I was, I was one of the locals. It works to take part in the local life— supporting the local language is something needed, necessary and good.

How can you say you really lived in a place or really loved a place if you haven’t heard, supported, loved and spoken the language of a place?

DF: You are a talented songwriter; “Naqanaga (Our Language),” “Chenh ditr’al iy (Until We See Each Other Again)” and “Ani Chonh Igili’eyh (Over the Rainbow in Deg Xinag)” are some examples of songs you’ve worked on. What role do you feel music plays in language learning?

GH: I feel strongly about using my talents to support language revitalization. I write music for schools, with teachers, students in small groups and individuals – all with local language. Lorna Vent from Huslia said “music is for building a spirit.” I write music to help build that spirit and the intangibles to experience language in a personal way. Students I’ve worked with usually like to try to add more Native language once they feel it for themselves. 

DF: Where does your work with Doyon Languages Online fit in to your goals as a language learner?

GH: Distance is a big challenge when it comes to being among speakers, learning the language and using it frequently. When I travel anywhere I try to visit places where I know language learning is happening and spend good time with folks.

Helping people overcome these challenges by developing units to people have online access to our language is part of why working for Doyon Languages Online has been so poignant and purpose-driven for me.

DF: You want to become more methodical about language learning. What would that look like?

GH: I’d like to learn more about moving beyond working with individuals. For instance, what can be done so that language takes on more life in a family context? How can culture camps and weekly or monthly or quarterly community events support intergenerational interaction in the language?

How could parents be empowered to use the language with their young ones and other family members? And since kids learn so quickly, how might roles be maintained when a child advances faster than adult family members? How can a social environment be built and supported so that local language use is favored and preferred?

Moreover, regarding language in groups: How does a community experience hope?

I believe the arts help in this area.

These are things I’d like to address. There’s so much to learn and share. Ting getiy dixet’a. Xogho ntr’ixetonik. The trail is awfully rough. We’ll work at it together.

DF: Any closing thoughts?

GH: When it comes to involving Elders working on Doyon Languages Online, Edna Deacon and Jim Dementi deserve mention. It wouldn’t happen without them. And I thank Doyon Foundation for the confidence it has in my role with Doyon Languages Online.

My language learning efforts are dedicated to Ellen Savage, my first teacher, and in memory of my dear folks who allowed me to be a person in my own skin and who were and are such encouragers of art and “the good life.” Dogidinh, xisrigidisddhinh sidithnaqay neg! “Thank you, I’m grateful, my dear parents!”

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for Holikachuk, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Hän, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Deg Xinag, Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aanděeg’ (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.

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.

BertinaOur language is the missing link to our identity”

Bertina Titus is the daughter of Carol Reid of Minto and the late Carl H. Ramay Jr. of Missouri. Bertinas maternal grandparents are Neal and Geraldine Charlie of Minto; her paternal grandparents are Florence and Melvin Ockert of Missouri. Bertina wishes to recognize her husband, Gabriel Titus; children Leanna Knight and Tehya, Desirae, Eliah, Asher, Traeton and Jerren Titus; brother Byron Charlie; and sister Annie Silas. 

Bertina lives in Wasilla and is a language specialist whose employers include the Yukon-Kuskokiwm School District and Doyon Foundation. She received a Doyon Foundation scholarship while enrolled in the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she studied accounting and rural development. Bertinas language is Benhti Kenaga, spoken by Alaska Native people of the lower Tanana region

Doyon Foundation: You see a connection between the example of Elders and language learning efforts today. Can you say more about that?

Bertina Titus: Our Elders were very strong in all they did because they operated out of every part of their Native values. This is why they lived and endured so much not only for their survival but our survival as well.

My grandparents Neal and Geraldine Charlie are among people who were instrumental in teaching me to speak my language. The list includes my husband, Gabriel; his grandmother Elsie Titus; and Sarah Silas. I’ve learned from some of the nicest people I know.

I truly feel that our language is the missing link to our identity. Without this language that God gave us, we may never reach the full potential that God created us to be.

DF: You consider yourself a language learner even while you’re helping to teach others.

BT: Yes, I’m still trying to learn. I’ve worked with Doyon Foundation on video lessons and with Susan Paskavan with Yukon-Kuskokiwm School District. One of the best language-learning techniques is repetition. Hands-on strategies, such as activities at home, would be good too even though it can seem hard at times to put this approach into practice.

DF: What advice do you have if people are unable to practice regularly?

BT: A big challenge is if you have nobody to speak the language with, someone who really understands it, or if you’re just not using it every day. To overcome challenges I just still try. I have the language in my heart and keep trying.

DF: Your hopes for language learning including someday moving to Minto where you were raised. There’s a link between fond memories of your growing-up years and your passion for language learning today.

BT: I loved living in Minto. I remember playing outdoors a lot; we felt pretty free! And when I was around my grandparents I’d hear the language being spoken. In school we were taught some basic Benhti Kenaga’ but not very much.

I would love to move back to Minto and teach the language in a class during school or after school. This would be a way to revive our language because it would involve others, not just school kids.

DF: Something you’d like others to know?

BT: I truly want to be a fluent speaker so that I may teach and learn all I can to help others. I want to be able to tell my grandpa someday when I see him in Heaven that I succeeded in his dream — and my dream — of helping others to learn our Native language. Everyone should have an interest in our God-given gift!

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.

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.

131_Student_Promotion_BEVERLY_FB-IN

“I am a lifelong learner. Baasee’ for supporting me”

A school district administrator for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Bev Kokrine is a veteran educator who’s pursuing a doctorate in Indigenous studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). She is an active supporter of the mission of Doyon Foundation as it works to enhance the lives of shareholders through educational, career and cultural opportunities.

Bev’s parents are the late Franklin and Lillian Simon of Huslia. Her paternal grandparents are the late Edwin and Lydia Simon of Huslia; maternal grandparents are the late Grafton and Agnes Koyukuk of Allakaket.

Doyon Foundation: Your efforts to advance the work of Doyon Foundation are inspiring, Bev. How did you become involved in Doyon Languages Online, the Doyon Foundation project to help people learn the Alaska Native languages of the Doyon region?

Bev Kokrine: I was hoping to learn more Denaakk’e and when the opportunity to work with Doyon Languages Online came up, I was thrilled.

My late mother and her sisters, cousins and close friends would speak Denaakk’e and giggle; they had a bond through the language and I wanted to share the joke but my siblings and I didn’t learn the language except for a few words. I do remember “wash the dishes.” My emotion was tied to that phrase and I remember it well!

DF: How do those early experiences help shape your work as a content creator with Doyon Languages Online?

BK: Listening to mom and dad speak the language was music to my ears. I admire any youth who can speak his or her Native language.

When I was living on the UAF campus as a student, I loved listening to my friends speak Yup’ik and today I enjoy listening to a friend sing in her Native language to her grandchildren.

I love the singing and dancing at the Koyukon Athabascan potlatches of Huslia, where I’m from. I love potlatches — I feel whole during the singing and dancing and I want to know the words being sung.

All these experiences inspire me to work with Doyon Languages Online because I hope someday we’ll hear more youth speaking Denaakk’e. They’ll know their culture and heritage if we teach them their Native language now.

DF: Walk us through some your tasks as a Doyon Languages Online content creator.

BK: I help develop conversation phrases by composing a dialog in English and then working with language experts who provide phrasing to express that dialog in sentences in Denaakk’e. Language experts including Eliza Jones, Susan Paskvan, Marie Yaska and Dewey Hoffman then help me say those sentences so they’re recorded. My mother shared her knowledge, too, and I’ve learned that even though she lived in Huslia for many years, her dialect is somewhat different because she was raised upriver in Allakaket.

DF: What attracted you to teaching? You earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1992 from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and have worked in education ever since. That’s real commitment.

BK: I always wanted to be teacher, from the time I was little and playing school by lining up old gas can boxes, pretending they were student desks. Sometimes I’d play postmaster — my mother was village postmaster for 30 years — but usually I’d play the teacher role.

As a student in Huslia from kindergarten through 10th grade, I admired my Alaska Native teachers like Dorothy Jordan and Lois Huntington. I saw that it was important to let children know that they’re loved, cared for, valued, that they can achieve whatever they dream.

DF: You’re in your second year as an administrator with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. How did a love of encouraging children shape your career?

BK: I began as a preschool teacher with the Fairbanks Native Association, then director of its Head Start program and then was hired by the school district where I taught for 20 years, mostly in kindergarten. I love children. I’ve learned that the “difficult student” has a story to tell.

And I like to establish bonds with students and their families so they feel welcome to participate in the child’s education.

DF: Can you share some highlights from your teaching life? Things that might inspire future teachers?

BK: You never know whose heart you’ll teach as an educator! Once my sister and I were at the fair and I heard someone say, “Mrs. Kokrine?” It was a “challenging” student from my first year of teaching. That 6-foot young man gave me a big hug. My sister took our picture.

One summer I received a random phone call from a young woman whom I taught as a kindergartener. She found my number in the phone book. She just wanted to say thank you!

DF: How have Doyon Foundation scholarships helped you achieve your education and career goals?

BK: Baasee’ to Doyon Foundation for supporting me. It’s with Doyon Foundation help that I graduated as a young mother. That scholarship money goes a long way: I remember having $5 and treating my children to French fries and a place to play. I don’t take those sorts of memories for granted.

DF: How did being a Doyon Foundation scholarship recipient lead to your commitment to learn Denaakk’e?

BK: Doyon Foundation is doing good work in helping students with scholarships and advancing language revitalization. In both cases, Doyon Foundation is helping people reach their goals.

DF: You’ve said the youth and Elders are on your heart.

BK: It’s a thought that guides my plan for a second career after I retire from education. I want to use Denaakk’e while helping Indigenous students succeed in higher education, such as college or trade school.

My dream is for Elders to have company and for young adults to have housing as they attend college or trade school. It’s a struggle coming from the village. I know that role all too well.

My goal is to finish my doctorate in Indigenous studies at UAF. It’s a challenging program; after my mother died in 2019, I briefly felt like putting the PhD on a back burner. Then my husband reminded me that I’m working toward this degree not just for me but for our children, our nieces, our nephews. For the youth. 

DF: What advice do you have for students thinking of going on to college or vocational training?

BK: Set goals, including daily goals for doing your homework.

My biggest challenge has been time management. I had to set goals to get my work done on time. Weekly goals and routines — for instance, setting aside time between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. to do homework — can help you avoid falling behind. It takes self-discipline.

Do your homework as soon as you can after class while information is still fresh in your brain. Reserve time to edit your college writing once a paper is done. Find a healthy cohort of other students. They can help support your studies.

DF: What would you say to students who find they must interrupt their studies? It can be hard to pick up where they’ve off.

BK: I’d encourage students to keep coming back even if you’ve had a year off. Keep on working at your goals. Come back to school even if you’re working full-time and attending school part-time. Never give up.

DF: Things you like to do include hosting family dinners, traveling, photography, and learning about other cultures. Others to add to this list?

BK: Yes. I serve on the board of the Fairbanks Native Association and I’m a member of the Alaska Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, a statewide group within the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice.

I enjoy sharing about the Koyukon Athabascan potlatches specific to the Huslia area. Developing a protocol for these potlatches was the focus of my master’s degree project in education and these celebrations are important to me. I love the bonding, working together, and gift giving and feeding my soul. It’s a time of singing and dancing and honoring those who’ve passed on. These potlatches are part of who I am.

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 grants from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP).

About our Language Champion profile series

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.

Strong roots connect us to our well-being”

Jennifer with Great Aunt Elizabeth Fleagle

Jennifer with her great-aunt, Dr. Elizabeth Fleagle

Originally from the Interior community of Allakaket on the Koyukuk River, Jennifer Adams is the daughter of the late Bob Maguire of Chelan, Washington, and the late Cora (Moses) Maguire of Allakaket. Jennifer’s maternal grandparents are Johnson Bergman Moses of Allakaket and the late Bertha (Nictune) Moses of Alatna. Other family include Jennifer’s great-aunt, Dr. Elizabeth Fleagle, a sister of Bertha Moses.

Jennifer is director of the Juneau-based Small Business Development Center, a unit within the Alaska Small Business Development Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. A Doyon Foundation scholarship recipient, Jennifer graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a bachelor’s degree in 2004 and a master’s of business administration in 2013. Her languages are Denaakk’e, spoken by Koyukon Alaska Native people, and Inupiaq, spoken by Inupiaq Alaska Native people.

Jennifer was a child when her father began introducing her to Inupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan. A non-Native teacher who came to Alaska straight out of college to teach at rural schools, Bob eventually arrived at Allakaket and met Cora, Jennifer’s mother.

Bob immersed himself in Koyukon and Athabascan cultures and in the lifestyles of Allakaket and Alatna. From his father-in-law, Johnson Moses, Bob learned Koyukon Athabascan vocabulary; his mother-in-law, Bertha Nictune Moses, taught him Inupiaq words. Jennifer grew up hearing her father readily incorporate both languages in everyday life.

“He’d say, ‘Wipe your nuvuk,’ (‘boogers,’ in Inupiaq) or ‘You have a big chaga,’ (‘stomach,’ in Koyukon Athabascan),” Jennifer says. And while Episcopal missionaries arriving in the early 1900s taught Jennifer’s parents not to speak their languages – and to not pass them on to their children – Jennifer’s mother went on to learn to speak Koyukon Athabascan as adult after studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Jennifer was enrolled in a fifth-grade bilingual Inupiaq class at Shugnak while her mother completed student teaching at a local school.

Jennifer believes that reconnecting Indigenous people to their culture and languages promotes a healthy society. And though her home in Juneau is far from people who speak her Native languages, Jennifer retains her connection by taking part in programs, including the He ‘ lelo Ola Hilo Field Study Conference in Hilo, Hawaii, in 2017.

“The conference was vital to learning about language immersion programs,” she says. Knowledge gained there led her to write a $1.6 million grant awarded to the Fairbanks Native Association for a Koyukon Athabascan classroom immersion program for preschoolers.

Her plans include continuing to research and write grants and enrolling in language courses in Inupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan. She also serves on Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization committee and was elected to the Foundation board of directors in November 2019.

“I’d like to thank Doyon Foundation and any other organizations that are instrumental in language learning programs,” she says. She knows from her own childhood that one of the best ways to acquire language is to use it in everyday settings.

“Language connects me to my culture,” Jennifer says. “It’s important to learn and preserve language knowledge so we have strong roots that connect us to our well-being.”

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.

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.

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.

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