language champion


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Doyon Languages Online

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

Doyon Languages Online is funded by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), awarded in 2016, and an additional three-year grant from the Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP), awarded in 2017.

About Language Champions

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

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

 

126_DLO Language Champion Promotion_ESAI2_FB-IN.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not just a language learner. I’m Deg Hit’an”

 

0Z1A6118 (1)A board member of Doyon, Limited and Doyon Foundation, Sonta Roach lives in her hometown of Shageluk where she’s a teacher in the Iditarod Area School District. She and her husband, Chevie Roach of Tok, have three children: Sydney, 7; Ryder, 5; and Emry, 4.

Sonta is the daughter of Rudy and Joyanne Hamilton of Shageluk. Her paternal grandparents are the late Adolph and Margaret Hamilton of Shageluk, and her maternal grandparents are Delores and the late Harlan Knauf of Bloomington, Minnesota. 

Sonta graduated from Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka and holds a bachelor’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS). Her language is Deg Xinag, a Northern Athabascan language.

Sonta believes learning her culture and learning her language are all one. She cherishes being on the land, hearing stories and practicing her language – “putting it all together,” she says.

“Returning home to Shageluk has been the best decision for our family, a gift to ourselves and to our kids,” Sonta says. “They’ll grow up comfortable on their lands and knowing who they are. I’m not just a language learner. I’m Deg Hit’an.”

IMG_4348Sonta considers herself a beginner, learning Deg Xinag alongside her students. (Deg Xinag, one of 10 languages spoken in the Doyon region, is the traditional language of the Deg Hit’an Athabascan in the Lower Yukon River villages of Shageluk, Anvik and Holy Cross. Grayling, another village in the Lower Yukon, speaks Holikachuk.) A college course at UAF and introductions to her language over the years in bilingual programs helped; teachers who’ve influenced her include Edna Deacon, Jim Dementi, Katherine Hamilton, Hannah Maillelle, Raymond Dutchman, Ellen Savage, Lucy Hamilton and Phillip Arrow, as well as her own parents and grandparents.

Most of those Elders have contributed to development of the Deg Xinag online learners dictionary. “I reference it constantly,” Sonta says. She believes that language revitalization is among her personal goals and responsibilities.

“I’m thankful to be learning, to be home, on the land, with my family and my students,” she says. “I see my work as a personal path toward understanding more about how my people viewed the world around them. Instead of being a ‘language champion,’ I see myself filling the shoes I was always meant to fill. I’d like to just continue on.”

IMG_3447She finds her students inspiring; some may go on to write children’s books or produce videos that extend the language learning community. “I have a few future linguists in my class,” Sonta says. “They see language learning as a priority, just as I do. I also see their love deepen for who they are.”

She’s grateful to Doyon Foundation – and all speakers and learners of Deg Xinag – for language revitalization efforts: “I encourage anyone to give language learning a try. Start small. Be easy on yourself.”

She advises starting a learning community with family members, finding resources and committing to practice. “Don’t be afraid of getting things wrong. Over time, you’ll realize the right sound.”

Lessons learned

Sonta relies on several techniques. “Think of a baby learning language,” she says. “Start with saying what things are and then move to commands and questions.” Other language-learning strategies include repetition, routine and daily practice; developing her own materials or adapting methods of others; and sharing her language with others.

IMG_2790Breaking free of self-doubt is key. Sonta believes that children who are told they’re mispronouncing Native language words may grow up thinking they can’t learn. “Since I told myself that I could learn – and that I could and should teach my own kids and the kids in my classroom – I’ve felt immense freedom,” she says.

Sonta uses her students’ morning routine to practice repetition that’s key to language learning. Daily topics like weather, counting, and saying and following instructions all lend themselves to learning Deg Xinag vocabulary. Physical education offers lots of opportunity as well. Carried out in Deg Xinag, childhood games like “Nanhdal, nanhdal, dits’in,” (“Duck, Duck, Goose”) and “Ghingligguk, Noghniy, Ghingligguk,” (“Run, Rabbit, Run”) are fun and efficient ways to practice pronunciation and vocabulary.

Sonta also combines language learning with classroom studies that focus on local activities such as dog mushing, cutting and drying fish, and gathering materials for birch baskets.

At home, she’s teaching her children the names of everyday objects. In the woods, she teaches names of resources like plants and animals. “For now, it’s purely noun identification and short questions in the language.” More conversational phrases will follow.

IMG_3458Being able to practice with language-learning materials, as well as learning alongside speakers and other students, is enriching for students at any level. But Sonta says that lack of access need not be a barrier to learning. Instead she advises learners to seek out opportunities on their own and not wait for a class to materialize.

“I have to create it for myself,” she says. She has made language learning a priority for herself, her family and her students. She’s grateful of the efforts of others, including Elders who contribute to online learning materials; staff at Iditarod Area School District who helped document the Deg Xinag language; and faculty like Alice Taff, a retired professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS.

“I’m thankful that we have one another,” Sonta says.

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we are noticing a group of people who are committed and dedicating their own time 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.

“When speaking, a part of our history comes back to life”

 

DavidA committed language learner, speaker and student, David Engles is a content creator with Doyon Languages Online, a Doyon Foundation project that is creating online language-learning opportunities for nine of the 10 Alaska Native languages of the Doyon region.

David’s language is Benhti Kenaga’, a Doyon region language traditionally spoken in the vicinity of the Minto Flats and the Tanana Valley, including the region now occupied by the city of Fairbanks. It is one of 10 languages located in the Doyon region.

David’s parents are Celeste Engles and Glenn Alexander of Benhti. He wishes to recognize Betty Engles, Jim and Evelyn “Tudrock” Alexander, and Neal and Geraldine Charlie of Benhti.

David believes that upholding Benhti Kenaga’ as an established form of communication is a responsibility. “Our people created this language,” he says of Benhti Kenaga’. “Our language is a way of expressing ourselves with our unique worldview.”

David is in his junior year at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in linguistics.

Teachers who were instrumental as he learned Benhti Kenaga’ include Evelyn “Tudrock” Alexander, his paternal grandmother whom he calls Sitsu (“my grandmother”). David grew up around Sitsu and recalls that she always spoke to him in Benhti Kenaga’.

“She was so patient with me while teaching,” he says. “Every day we would engage in learning, from identifying animal parts to learning whom you give them to when feeding people.”

Acquiring vocabulary and mastering correct pronunciation in any language may be learned by rote memory; the strategy works, but it’s usually not fun. Tudrock’s method – incorporating lots of singing – made learning a joy.

“We even translated ‘Eight Days a Week’ by the Beatles into Benhti Kenaga’,” David says. And while they were singing, Tudrock was teaching the meaning of Benhti Kenaga’ words as well as how they’re ordered to express thought. Each lesson prepared him for the next. “We had fun,” he says.

As a content creator for Doyon Languages Online, David is part of a project with the goal to promote accurate use of language by teaching everyday terms. An example is learning to choose correct vocabulary for a given context – for instance, when to use “sitsu” (“my grandmother”) and “nitsu” (“your grandmother”).

Doyon Languages Online is in the process of creating introductory-level online lessons for nine of the 10 Doyon region languages. A project of Doyon Foundation, Doyon Languages Online is a partnership with the 7000 Languages, a nonprofit that supports endangered language learning.

Learning Benhti Kenaga’ is among David’s lifelong goals. His plans include producing short stories presented as children’s books and written in both Benhti Kenaga’ and English. The books are intended for anyone starting to learn Benhti Kenaga’.

“These stories can provide building blocks to a wider vocabulary,” he says. “Being able to express ourselves in our own language is a true reflection of who we are as people.”

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we would like 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.

“Native languages are important to all Alaskans”

Beth LeonardBeth Leonard is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage where she directs the Alaska Native Studies Program. She holds a doctorate in cross-cultural and Alaska Native studies in addition to degrees in linguistics and language and literacy. In 2014, she traveled to New Zealand as a Fulbright scholar.

Her parents are James Dementi of Nenana/Shageluk and the late Jean Dementi, originally from Ventura, California. Her maternal grandparents are Charles and Ruth Aubrey of Ventura, California; her paternal grandparents are Charlie Dementi of Dishkaket and Lena Phillips Dementi of Shageluk.  

Immediate family members include her husband, Michael Leonard; daughter, Samantha Jean Quinn, and son-in-law, Richard Quinn; and Jeanette Dementi, her father’s second wife, originally from Michigan.  

“I didn’t learn Deg Xinag growing up, so I didn’t understand and appreciate my culture as much as I could have,” Beth says. “Language helps connect me with my immediate and extended family. It strengthens my identity as a Deg Xit’an person.”

Beth was in her early 30s when she began learning the language from her father, James Dementi. “He was very patient,” she recalls. The two recently worked together to contribute translations for a new Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation building in Bethel. Elders who taught community-based language and cultural activities, sometimes including audioconferenced university courses, were also instrumental to her learning. These Elders included Raymond Dutchman, Hannah Maillelle, Katherine Hamilton, Louise Winkelman, Edna Deacon and Lucy Hamilton. Beth also learned from audio recordings of Belle Deacon of Grayling, Grace John of Shageluk, and others who were recorded during the 1970s Alaska Native Oral Literature Project.

“Because Alaska Native languages are so different from English, they’re often considered hard to learn,” Beth says. Learning to speak authentically can be a challenge; everyday activities may be expressed in several ways, so that some variations are more suited to certain situations or seasons than others.

“Fear of making mistakes has been among my biggest challenges,” Beth says.

She’s grateful for chances to learn with other language students and Elders: “I wish I’d learned more of the language as a younger person. Immersion programs, like those in Anchorage and Fairbanks, among other sites, are signs that young people are eager to learn Native languages.”

“I’m thankful for Elders and young people who take on this work,” she says. While administrative duties have limited her teaching lately, she’s eager to help guide efforts for Native language learning at the university level and beyond, including language revitalization work undertaken by some members of the Alaska Native Studies Council.

A class in Athabascan linguistics taught by Professor James Kari at the University of Alaska Fairbanks inspired Beth’s interest in learning Deg Xinag. His course and others introduced her to the history of ways that indigenous languages had been suppressed and marginalized. She went on to work with Alice Taff, a professor from the University of Alaska Southeast, who’s since retired. Alice contributed to a grammar of Deg Xinag and, with the help of educator Donna MacAlpine and several Elders, developed a Deg Xinag online dictionary. More recently, Alice and Donna recorded stories by Hannah Maillelle, Ellen Savage and Edna Deacon, available through a University of Alaska Southeast website.

Instrumental work in Deg Xinag has been done by many community members and educators, including Malinda and Marilyn Chase of Fairbanks/Anvik, George Holly of Soldotna/Holy Cross, and Jeanette Dementi, who helped translate the Lord’s Prayer and developed language-learning games, songs and other materials. Jeanette also recorded Beth’s father’s story about butchering a moose.

Sonta Hamilton Roach from Shageluk and Dr. LaVerne Demientieff from Fairbanks/Holy Cross have been active most recently in Deg Xinag language teaching initiatives, including facilitating the “Where Are Your Keys” method. LaVerne also began hosting a telephone language learning group in fall 2018.

Immersion methods of language learning, along with listening to recorded stories and conversations, are useful strategies for Beth because she’s not distracted by writing. “I found that I became too dependent on the writing system when I should have been developing my listening skills,” she says. For language learning, active listening can help with memorizing and pronunciation.

“Native languages are important to all of us Alaskans, as they carry thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom,” Beth says, adding that the languages embody worldviews that contrast with Western ways.

Virtues such as respect and reciprocity and the importance of right relationships are a foundation for many indigenous peoples in the way they speak about – and with – other people, the land and waters, and other beings that share the world. “These values are carried through Alaska Native languages in complex, academic ways,” Beth says.

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we would like 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.

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