Language


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 foundation@doyon.com 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 haytona@doyon.com. Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here. You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website.

See below for our July Native word of the month in Gwich’in!

Vits’ihnyaa = I help (him or her)
Shitsuu łuk tr’it’ii haa vits’ihnyaa geenjit shats’a’ shoo nilii. = My grandmother is happy I am helping her cut fish.

Listen to an audio recording.

JulyHai’ (thank you) to Allan Hayton for providing this month’s translation.

Have a translation in another language? Share it with us on Facebook!

Each month, a new Native word or phrase and definition will be shared on our website, as well as on our blog and Facebook page, along with an audio recording of the pronunciation.

Have an idea for a Native Word of the Month? Please email your idea to haytona@doyon.com.

See below for our April and May Native words of the month in Gwich’in! Hai’ (thank you) to Allan Hayton for providing the translation and photography.P1120223

April 

Gwahahgo’ = It is turning springtime.

Chiitaii gwahahgo’ ts’a’ shroonch’yaa gwilii. = It is becoming springtime and nice outside.

Listen to an audio recording.

May 

Ch’at’an = Leaves

Aat’oo kat ch’at’an kwaii neegwahshii. = The leaves are spouting on the birch trees.

Listen to an audio recording.

Each month, a new Native word or phrase and definition will be shared on our website, as well as on our blog and Facebook page, along with an audio recording of the pronunciation.

Have a translation in another language? Share it with us on Facebook!

Have an idea for a Native Word of the Month? Please email your idea to haytona@doyon.com.

The Doyon Languages Online program has had a busy spring! Read on for recaps of recent activities, and be sure to subscribe to the Doyon Foundation blog to receive future monthly updates.

Here’s what you will find in our spring update:

Doyon Languages Online Project Gets Underway

Language Demos Now Available

Presenting at the Alaska Native Studies Conference

Collaborating on Language Revitalization

Get Involved


Doyon Languages Online Project Gets Underway

The Doyon Languages Online (DLO) project got underway with a gathering of educators, speakers, and curriculum developers at Doyon Foundation on Saturday, February 18, 2017. Doyon Foundation Executive Director Doris Miller along with board president Lanien Livingston welcomed key representatives from five languages: Denaakk’e, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Hän, Holikachuk, and Behnti Kenaga’.

The purpose of the meeting was to begin the first phase of a three-year project to create and post basic lessons online through partner 7000 Languages. 7000 Languages is a non-profit that connects endangered language communities with the technology to teach, learn, and revive their languages. The technology used in the DLO project is donated by Transparent Language. The open source platform will have the capacity to be continually modified and added to, ensuring it will be a valuable resource for learners for many generations to come. Ultimately, the project will include all languages in the Doyon region.

The day began with attendees introducing themselves in their own languages. Eliza Jones expressed that she was happy to be involved in the project, and that “working with my Denaakk’e language is nourishment for the soul.” As we finished the circle of introductions, Minto elder Sarah Silas said she loved hearing everyone speaking Athabascan language, and to her it sounded like “the most beautiful music, like all of the birds singing together and making the most amazing song.” She inspired the room with her warm comforting smile and gave everyone love and hope. Sarah shared that she was “so happy and proud that younger people were doing this good work.”

To familiarize everyone with the Transparent Language software, attendees broke into groups and recorded short conversations in their respective languages. This activity was instructive for everyone involved, and served as a “pilot demo” for the work ahead. These demos are available to preview at the end of this article.

The group enjoyed moose soup and fry bread for lunch, prepared by Doyon Foundation admin Sommer Stickman, and the crew at Doyon Facilities. After lunch Vera Weiser brought everyone back together with an uplifting song, “Onee’,” made by Evelyn Alexander as a prayer for a safe return of her granddaughter from firefighting in the Lower 48.

Sunday, February 19 was day two of the weekend workshop, and was a smaller group that focused on creating a template or “roadmap” for the 10 units of lessons in the project. Team members shared their ideas for creating “Day 1, Lesson 1” of the first unit. A development team will create a complete document for the 10 units by July, and this document will serve as a style guide for all five languages.

The DLO project strives to create a collaborative space for all team members to produce the best learning material possible. Doyon Foundation language committee member Rochelle Adams of Beaver stated, “I’m honored to do this good work for our people. I’m grateful to work alongside our elders and to connect with others that share the same passion and fire to put the breath back into our languages!”

David Engels of Minto added, “We are good Athabascans who travel and do not forget who we are, or where we come from.”

Darren Deacon of Kalskag has always loved languages, and has studied Russian and Japanese among other languages. His family teased him that he “loved to talk so much that he had to learn five different languages so he could talk some more.” This project will provide an opportunity for him to learn his Holikachuk language.

Language committee member and Holikachuk elder Elizabeth Keating felt that “It was special, heart-warming, hopeful, exciting and more. I especially enjoyed Darren’s enthusiasm for learning our language.”

Overall, it was a great weekend, and the group represented a model of collaboration that included elders, PhD-level professors, community members, and teachers that share a passion for the ancestral languages of our region.

Alexa Little, executive director of 7000 Languages, shared after the meeting, “We do a lot of our work over video conference, so it was a special experience for me to visit Alaska and meet the Doyon Languages Online team in person. I’m so excited watching this project take shape — it’s clear that everyone involved is extremely passionate about revitalizing these languages.”


Language Demos Now Available

Doyon Languages Online (DLO) is excited to announce our first series of demo lessons! These demos were created during the February 18 and 19 kick-off meeting, and provide short examples of what the DLO project is creating.

Test out demos of lessons in Denaakk’e, Holikachuk, Hän, Benhti Kenaga’, and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in) by clicking on the icons below:

Han Demo button

Benhti button

holikachuk button

dinjii button

denaakke button


Presenting at the Alaska Native Studies Conference

The 2017 Alaska Native Studies Conference was held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) April 7 – 9. Doyon Foundation staff Allan Hayton and Nathaniel Feemster presented at this year’s conference, sharing updates on the Doyon Languages Online (DLO) project.

Attendees at their presentation learned more about the DLO project, and were able to test out demos of lessons in Denaakk’e, Holikachuk, Hän, Benhti Kenaga’, and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in). Allan also facilitated a Gwich’in language preconference session along with Caroline Tritt-Frank and Kenneth Frank, and co-presented on a panel for the Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh language nest.

The 2017 Alaska Native Studies Conference was an inspiring gathering of people, ideas, and hope for the future of our languages and cultures of the Doyon region and across the state. We look forward to the 2018 conference scheduled to be held in Juneau.

See more event photos on Facebook!


Collaborating on Language Revitalization

Doyon Languages Online (DLO) is a unique collaborative effort between five languages: Denaakk’e, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Benhti Kenaga’, Hän, and Holikachuk. Due to the great distance between team members, collaboration takes place via technology such as Google Drive, email, video and teleconferencing.

We were fortunate to have everyone in the same room February 18 and 19, and we are aiming to host another gathering before July. The DLO project has held two more collaborative meetings (one on March 26 and one on April 23) via audio teleconference with the development team since the February 19 initial development meeting.

During these collaborative meetings, we share and discuss the material each language team has developed in the time between meetings. These meetings capitalize on the creativity and passion of each language team and allow them to work in conjunction, meaning that each language benefits from the work produced.

See more photos on Facebook!


Get Involved

If you’d like to get involved in the Doyon Languages Online efforts to revitalize our Native languages, or want to learn more, please contact Allan Hayton at 907.459.2162 or haytona@doyon.com, or Nathaniel Feemster at 907.459.2107 or feemstern@doyon.com.

drumSee below for our March Native word of the month in Gwich’in and Deg Xinag!

Gwich’in

Vadzaih dhaa = Caribou hide

Vadzaih dhaa haa shuh dhałtsaii. = I made a drum from caribou hide.

Listen to an audio recording. Hai’ (thank you) to Allan Hayton for providing the translation.

Deg Xinag

Ghinoy vidhith = Caribou hide

Ghinoy vidhith yił sigisrosr dhitlsenh. = I made my drum with caribou hide.

Listen to an audio recording. Dogidinh (thank you) to George Demientieff Holly for providing the translation.

Each month, a new Native word or phrase and definition will be shared on our website, as well as on our blog and Facebook page, along with an audio recording of the pronunciation.

Have a translation in another language? Share it with us on Facebook!

Have an idea for a Native Word of the Month? Please email your idea to haytona@doyon.com.

Woman and child

Mary “Dzan” Johnson and daughter Lena, Fort Yukon circa 1916. Photo courtesy of Allan Hayton.

See below for our February Native word of the month in Gwich’in and Deg Xinag!

Gwich’in

Dink’indhat – He or she grew up.
Shahan Gwichyaa Zhee dink’indhat. – My mom grew up in Fort Yukon.
Shiti’ Natick dink’indhat. – My father grew up in Natick.

Listen to an audio recording. Hai’ (thank you) to Allan Hayton for providing the translation.

Deg Xinag

Nadhiyonh – He or she grew up in
Singonh Deloychet nadhiyonh. – My mom grew up in Holy Cross.
Sito’ Qay Xichux nadhiyonh. – My dad grew up in Anchorage.

Listen to an audio recording. Dogidinh (thank you) to George Demientieff Holly for providing the translation.

Each month, a new Native word or phrase and definition will be shared on our website, as well as on our blog and Facebook page, along with an audio recording of the pronunciation.

Have a translation in another language? Share it with us on Facebook!

Have an idea for a Native Word of the Month? Please email your idea to haytona@doyon.com.

Linguistics Consultant and Content Creators Sought

Doyon Foundation is pleased to announce a call for a linguistics consultant as well as content creators for the Doyon Languages Online project. RFQs (request for qualifications) for both positions are posted at www.doyonfoundation.com. Interested applicants are encouraged to apply by March 6, 2017 (note the deadline has been extended from February 20).

The Doyon Languages Online project, funded with a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans, aims to create 280 introductory online lessons for five of the endangered Doyon region languages: Holikachuk, Denaakk’e, Benhti Kenaga’, Hän, and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa. Ultimately, Doyon Foundation aims to create online courses for all 10 of the Doyon region languages.

The project is a partnership with 7000 Languages, a nonprofit that supports endangered language learning partially through software donated by Transparent Language Online.

For more information on the project scope, background, qualifications and selection process, please see the linguistics consultant RFQ and content creator RFQ, both available at www.doyonfoundation.com. Interested applicants should apply online by March 6.

For additional information on Doyon Foundation or the Doyon Languages Online project, visit www.doyonfoundation.com or contact Allan Hayton at haytona@doyon.com or 907.459.2162.

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