language champion

“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 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 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 Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here. You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website.

“When I’m learning my language, I feel like I’m finding myself and understanding who I am.”


Diloola Erickson’s parents are Susan Erickson from Kaltag and Arne Erickson from Tok. Her maternal grandparents are the late Irene and Alexander Solomon, Jr., of Kaltag. Her paternal grandparents are Joyce Erickson and the late John Erickson of Tok. Diloola’s language is Denaakk’e (Koyukon).

Diloola edited

Born in Sitka, Diloola Erickson was raised in the Tlingit village of Hoonah in Southeast Alaska, where her favorite part of school was Tlingit class. And though she loved learning Tlingit, she remembers feeling that something was missing.

“I grew up so far from my culture that I always felt distant from it – I always had a longing to know more,” she says.

To help ensure that her 3-year-old daughter, Tsee’ołyeets, is immersed in her language and culture from an early age, Diloola is focused on becoming fluent in Denaakk’e, the language of the Athabascan people of the central Koyukuk and Yukon rivers.

Along with Dewey Hoffman, who works with language revitalization in Fairbanks, and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) language instructor Lorraine David, Diloola co-hosts a weekly language-learning group at her home and has enrolled her daughter in a language-learning classroom at Fairbanks Native Association. She practices Denaakk’e with her daughter daily, using a Denaakk’e weather wheel and family name chart. “I want to pass on my language and culture so that she’ll always know who she is and where she comes from,” Diloola says.

A Doyon, Limited shareholder, Diloola’s commitment to Denaakk’e fluency deepened when she attended the Alaska Native Studies conference in 2017. It was at an intensive workshop facilitated by Dewey Hoffman that Diloola met Lorraine David, a fluent Denaakk’e speaker who inspired Diloola to start her language journey. Lorraine is a former Doyon Foundation board member and veteran language instructor at UAF.

“I was craving more sessions like that,” Diloola says, and Lorraine agreed to meet with Diloola and her group weekly. She often records their sessions and tries to listen daily to gain vocabulary and pronunciation.

“Lorraine is passionate about passing on our language. She has been one of the biggest supporters in my journey,” Diloola says.

A UAF student graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in rural development and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Diloola plans to pursue work in positions that will allow her to help raise up Alaska Native people. She sees language revitalization as part of the efforts to create positive change in Alaska Native communities. DErickson

As a First Alaskans Institute summer intern at Doyon Foundation in 2017, Diloola contributed to the Doyon Languages Online team by developing multimedia materials promoting language revitalization in the Doyon region. The team’s favorites include stickers featuring beaded gloves conveying everyday phrases in Denaakk’e, like “Enee!” (“good!”). Familiar to any conference-goer, “Hello, my name is …” adhesive name tags were created by Diloola in each of the Doyon region languages. Name tags were available at school fairs throughout Anchorage and Fairbanks.

edzooDiloola also helped lead a workshop at the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference, “Taking Language Revitalization Online – Using GIFs to Get the Word Out.” Participants developed their own GIFs – a format that animates images to easily share them online – and brainstormed other forms of social media aimed at encouraging people to take join in language revitalization.

“Ultimately my goal is to use my education to uplift my culture and the Alaska Native community,” Diloola says. “Learning my language is the biggest part of learning who I am.”

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 Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here. You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website.

A conversation with Irene Solomon Arnold and Allan Hayton

IMAG2016This language champion profile features an interview with Irene Solomon Arnold (IA) and Doyon Foundation’s Language Revitalization Program Director Allan Hayton (AH).

Irene was born and raised in Tanacross, Alaska. Her mother’s side of the family is from Diihthaad. Her name was Stella Luke Solomon. Her father’s side of the family was from Saages Cheeg” (Ketchumstock). His name was Silas Solomon. Her maternal grandparents were Harry and Jennie Luke. Her paternal grandparents were Peter and Annie Solomon.

In 1992 Irene began teaching the Tanacross language in Tok, Alaska, for the Alaska Gateway School District. She completed an Associate of Applied Science in Native Language Education with the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College in Whitehorse, in conjunction with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has been a lifelong advocate for language and cultural education for younger generations.

Tanacross is the ancestral language of the Mansfield-Ketchumstuk and Healy Lake-Joseph Village bands of Athabascan people, whose homelands extend from the Goodpaster River to the west, the Alaska Range to the south, the Fortymile and Tok Rivers to the east, and the Yukon Uplands to the north. The language is spoken in the villages of Tanacross, Dot Lake and Healy Lake and is one of nine endangered Athabascan Dene languages in the Doyon region. Efforts are underway to continue speaking, teaching and learning the language.

AH: Thank you for agreeing to be a part of Foundation’s Language Champion series. This series highlights people across Doyon region and their work in language revitalization. Doyon region has 10 languages. We are one of the only ANCSA corporations with this many languages, but I think it’s a blessing. Really, they are like riches right?

IA: Right.

AH: Riches of the land, and of the people.

IA: And we are fortunate enough to have a fluent speaker or speakers in each of these languages. That is so good to see because when I got started in the 80s, we had no idea it was going to come to this.

AH: I feel the same. When I was growing up, I didn’t expect in my own lifetime that the Gwich’in language might not continue.

IA: When I began I didn’t think I was going into the language field. When the boarding schools made me quit speaking our language, I just eradicated it from my mind.

I came back in ’66, and I really began to take interest. I wanted to know what all the grandmas and grandpas were saying. My grandmother and all of them were speaking this rapid language. I would just be blown away. I realized they’re telling interesting stories. I didn’t expect to learn it. I just wanted to hear the stories.

So there began my teaching and I didn’t know it. Grandma would say words and she would look at me, and I know then I am supposed to repeat it. I had a southern accent, a really deep Georgia accent, so that’s what made them laugh more. Except for my dad and uncle Andrew Isaac, and grandma. They didn’t laugh. They probably did, but they wouldn’t let me see it.

It went on for years. I’d ask grandma, “What they say? What they say?” And then one day, she said, I asked her, “What was that?” She said, “I can’t tell you, you have to learn it.”

In my mind I already knew how to say the words because subconsciously I was paying attention. When it was time for me to pronounce the words, it was already there. Then the more I worked at it, and listened to tapes from those old stories, and then languages and then the memory came back slowly, and the correct way to pronounce words, until finally I could sit and talk with grandma and them.

If I said something wrong, my grandma would repeat it. She wouldn’t say, “Not that way,” she would simply repeat it. Without prior instruction, she knew how to teach language. 

Listen to audio clip of Irene’s response:

AH: That’s good that you had a teacher like that.

IA: Yes, she had patience.

AH: What was that experience like when the language started coming back to you?

IA: It was like a dream. I would listen to tapes of the old folks talking, and memories would come back of where I was when I heard that story. I started comparing the different ways people spoke the language. My grandmother would tell me old words, and she made me aware that there are different dialects.

I got interested in the meaning of different words. When we were doing the Tanacross Learners’ Dictionary (Dihthaad Xt’een Aandeg’  The Mansfield People’s Language, which Irene authored with Gary Holton and Richard Thoman), I would take other dictionaries like Gwich’in and I’d find the word. I would compare them and come up with the correct word for our language.

When I started, I was working as a youth counselor, and they asked me if I would teach our language. I told them, “I don’t know how to teach.” They said, “Yes you do, you know how to counsel and do talking circle, do it that way.” And so that’s where it started, my language work.

I went to Tok UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) campus, and asked if there were any courses that would teach me how to be a language teacher. Because I knew there had to be something else. My students could not advance after a certain point. Eventually I found the Native language teaching at Yukon College. Avis Northway, too, she is the first recipient of the Native language certificate from Yukon College. I would use Avis a lot in my language class. And she became almost fluent in Tanacross language, and me in her language.

Together we learned you need to have one room where you dedicate it to your language class, because you put all this on your wall. All different pictures of different seasons. Just basic stuff, just put it up there, let them see it every day.

We realized children are more visual learners. We would take them outdoors, even when it’s cold, we’d take them outdoors and show them what we’re talking about. So I stayed with Tok School for three years but there was no support.

AH: When you came back in 1966 and began to hear the language again, re-familiarizing your tongue and beginning to speak, do you feel like you began to understand the way of life and belief more?

IA: Yes. In the language, I feel more as an elder, I feel more grounded, more part of a unique system now that I can think in our language. That was a breakthrough, when you start thinking in your language. That opened up a whole new world.

AH: There is research that shows children benefit from having their language in terms of their wellbeing, and health. It’s a support for all learning, to have that grounding in the language.

IA: Especially nowadays the things they are learning on TV has nothing to do with village life. And yet our young people are so involved with that television and the technological world now. It’s so different from our way of life. No wonder they’re searching, and they don’t even know they’re searching.

I think our language really needs to be in the school. At this point in time it should be well established in our school, and it’s not. I don’t know what it is, or why it’s not, because we have all the material.

So that’s my dream for our language is to get it in the school, established in the local school. And if it’s taught like that on a daily basis, it will be a big success in our schools.

Listen to audio clip of Irene’s response:

AH: Do you have a chance in your daily life to talk in your language?

IA: No, Tanacross has, let’s see, they have, there’s Mildred, fluent speakers, Nellie Probert, Mildred Jonathan, probably Jerry Isaac, probably half dozen people who can speak fluently. But there’s others too who speak and understand but they’re not fluent.

AH: It’s that way for Gwich’in too. There are younger people that can understand it, but they respond in English.

IA: You have more speakers than any language, it seems like. Because everywhere you see, you meet a Gwich’in, they speak to each other in their language.

AH: It is changing. I’m 48 now, and not getting younger.

IA: My goodness, I knew you when you were just that tall, and your mom. She used to do so much with you guys, and took you to a lot of places.

AH: Yeah, I miss her all the time.

IA: She always spoke your language with you.

AH: When I was starting to teach at the university, I would call her and ask “Amaa, jii nats’a’ts’a’ deegwiheenjyaa?”, “How do we say this?” I think about our departed loved ones, now they’re gone but I think they’re somewhere sharing stories again and reunited.

IA: Sitting by a river somewhere.

For a complete audio or written transcript of this interview, please contact the Foundation at or 907.459.2048.

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 Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here. You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website.