Native Culture


Supported by Doyon Foundation, Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh (“Our Language Nest”) is an immersion program that teaches children to become fluent speakers of Gwich’in while helping preserve one of the world’s most threatened Indigenous languages.

Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh meets Saturdays at various sites in and around Fairbanks so that parents and children may speak Gwich’in, sing songs, share lessons and create learning activities. Virtually all activities are in Gwich’in, and the activity is free of charge.

“The group is open to everyone, but especially parents with young children,” says Allan Hayton, the Foundation’s language revitalization program director. “The goal is to teach Gwich’in to children by talking to them in the language.”

Gatherings typically attract a half-dozen or so parents and as many as 10 children. There is no fee to attend and parents also rely on the group to learn Gwich’in.

A “no-English” policy is typical of language nest immersion programs in Alaska and throughout the world. Adopting the metaphor of a nest as a safe place to learn, Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh is an early childhood education project that brings together Elders who are fluent speakers and parents and children, who typically speak English only.

Hayton began working with parents in 2015 to start Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh; today he’s among the group’s leaders, which includes parents and other community members. Partners include University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Rural Student Services and Denakkanaaga, the Fairbanks-based nonprofit organization for Native Elders. Over the years, the group has met outdoors, at parents’ homes, at Denakkanaaga and the UAF campus.

“No two Language Nest meetings are the same,” says Charlene Stern, a mother who has been involved since the group’s very first meeting. By the time her son was born, Charlene says she realized she wanted him to hear Gwich’in daily, at home. Charlene’s first language is English; her mother and siblings are fluent Gwich’in speakers.

Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh differs from teaching that introduces vocabulary in a new language by having students memorize isolated words or phrases. Some meetings involve getting together to share a meal and practice Gwich’in table phrases. Other gatherings focus on games and songs or venturing outdoors. This in-context approach teaches Gwich’in by offering everyday, appealing situations that “feed” the language into ears of young children. Two primary teachers who are fluent speakers are on hand at Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh gatherings. Parents who are second-language learners also are welcome to lead activities and lessons.

Worldwide language nest projects trace their start to 1982 and successful efforts to revive the Maori language in New Zealand. In Alaska, the nine ancestral languages of the Doyon region were the first languages spoken by the people as recently as 100 years ago. Revitalization programs like Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh can add to the number of fluent speakers and lessen the risk that the language will be lost.

“For me, one of the most important things about the Language Nest is that it creates a space where our children positively engage with our culture and language,” Charlene says. Alaska Native children typically are a minority in urban public schools, and she says Native children often experience discrimination that fosters feelings of inferiority. “Language Nest helps equip our children with stronger identities so that they become more resilient individuals and tribal members.”

Language nests such as Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh adhere to evidence-based strategies in early childhood education. For instance, research shows that up to about age 7, children acquire a second language – or third or fourth – as naturally as they learn a first language.

Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh is one of several Foundation-supported programs to revitalize Indigenous languages in the Doyon region. Efforts include the Native Word of the Month and Doyon Languages Online, the grant-funded project that is developing online lessons for five of the Doyon languages: Holikachuk, Denaakk’e, Benhti Kenaga’, Hän and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa. Plans eventually call for online lessons in all Doyon region languages.

Charlene is among the Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh parents from families who encouraged English as a step to success in the Western world. “Today we know that speaking more than one language carries many benefits,” she says. “And we know that culture and language revitalization is critical to personal identity and collective well-being.”

She’s looking forward to a time when more families take part in Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh or similar community-driven efforts.

“We participate because it’s something that’s important to us, our children, and generations yet to come,” she says. “We can’t look to organizations, school districts or government grants to singlehandedly revitalize the Gwich’in language. I believe it’s up to us.”

For more information on Diiginjik K’yaa Ch’at’oh and how to get involved in the Language Nest, please contact Allan Hayton at 907.459.2162 or haytona@doyon.com.

“Xisrigidisddhinh … so grateful. I absolutely loved spending time with Elders and learners speaking Deg Xinag. It was invaluable to me.” –LaVerne Demientieff, PhD, Doyon Foundation Board Member

Language speakers, teachers, learners and those interested in revitalizing Deg Xinag and Holikachuk languages gathered in Holy Cross June 4 – 7. The gathering, sponsored by Doyon Foundation with support from the Administration for Native Americans, began with dinner at the Holy Cross School on Sunday evening, and continued Monday through Wednesday, overlapping with the 2017 Denakkanaaga Elders and Youth Conference.

Elders gather in the Holy Cross school library to share language and stories

Elders gather in the Holy Cross school library to share language and stories.

Deg Xinag is the traditional language of Deg Hit’an Athabaskans in four villages on the Lower Yukon River: Shageluk, Anvik, Holy Cross and Grayling. Holikachuk is the traditional language of the former village of the same name on the Innoko River. In 1962, residents of Holikachuk relocated to Grayling on the Lower Yukon River.

Deg Xinag and Holikachuk languages are among the most endangered in the Doyon region. The remaining speakers of each can all be known by first name only, and most were present at the gathering in Holy Cross.

The gathering brought together Elders, speakers, teachers, learners and other stakeholders to create momentum for current and future language revitalization initiatives in the Doyon region. Elders and speakers in attendance included Edna Deacon, Mary Deacon, Jim Dementi, Daisy Demientieff and Elizabeth Keating, along with University of Alaska Southeast linguist Alice Taff, and teachers and learners Donna MacAlpine, Jeanette Dementi, LaVerne Demientieff, Sonta Hamilton Roach and Kyle Worl. Doyon Languages Online content creators Susan Paskvan and Bev Kokrine, and Doyon Foundation board member and language revitalization committee chair Paul Mountain were also in attendance.

Participants playing the table top language learning game led by Susan Paskvan

Participants playing the table top language learning game led by Susan Paskvan.

Elder Elizabeth Keating, who grew up in the village of Holikachuk before it was relocated to present day Grayling, and who spoke Holikachuk fluently until her teenage years, shared eloquent words about her time at the gathering. “It was a powerful and sometimes emotional experience for me,” she said. “First time in a long time that I’ve been involved where everyone was speaking my language. It dredged up memories and emotions in a wholesome way. I am more dedicated than ever to revitalizing the language.” The process of delving into ancestral language can be a profound and life-changing endeavor for those with a passion to learn, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s and others’ comments during the gathering.

The goal of the gathering was to create a call to action, develop practical steps toward long-range goals, and share inspiration and hope around language revitalization. The event created a space for learners to ask Elders questions about the language, and for Elders to share their knowledge and experience with learners. For many, language provides a source of connection with departed loved ones, with the culture, with one another, and with the land. Edna Deacon shared that when she has difficulty recalling a word or phrase, she will silently ask her late father, and in time it will come to her as though he were “whispering in her ear.”

The focus on Indigenous language over several days was particularly meaningful in this community, former home to the Holy Cross Mission Orphanage where oppression of Alaska Native language and culture was a common practice and whose repercussions are still felt very strongly generations later. Read more in the article “The Last Orphans of Holy Cross” by Mary Annette Pember.

Holy Cross village from the cross on the hill

Holy Cross village from the cross on the hill.

LaVerne Demientieff, Ph.D., a professor in social work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a Doyon Foundation board member, has drawn connections between language learning and healing from trauma. “When people experience trauma it can be hard to regulate our nervous system, feel safe, trust, connect with others, build relationships, etc. It is always a work in progress to ‘feel normal,’ or what we perceive ‘normal’ to be. This directly relates to language in my understanding and experience and it is why there should be love, safety and strengths that are included in language revitalization efforts.”  

A wonderful outcome of the gathering in Holy Cross was the formation of a language-learning group that will continue to meet regularly. Demientieff, who is also a Foundation language committee member, shared her commitment to moving forward. “My personal goals are to listen daily to language via audio and maybe take a linguistics class or two. I am open to writing about language, working on language activities, like documentation, preservation of older materials, working with community and being a part of Deg Xinag language classes,” she stated. The group will meet via teleconference, and is open to anyone interested in learning Deg Xinag.

For more information on the gathering, the language revitalization program, or the newly formed language-learning group, please contact Allan Hayton, Doyon Foundation language revitalization program director, at 907.459.2162 or haytona@doyon.com.

See more photos from the gathering on the Foundation’s Facebook page.

Missed the language gathering? Check out these video clip highlights from the event:

 

Crystal Demientieff-Worl, Rico Demientieff-Worl, and Kyle Kaayak’w Demientieff-Worl are three siblings who share a dedication to the culture of Alaska Native people. Each earned Doyon Foundation scholarships. The siblings are committed to applying their college education to advance Native people.

Their parents are Beverly Demientieff and Rodney Worl. Their maternal grandparents are Alice and Rudy Demientieff; their paternal grandparents are Rosita Worl and Rodolfo Rodriguez. Their stepmother is Dawn Dinwoodie.

“Foundation scholarships helped so much,” says Rico. “To be competitive as a people, it’s so important that higher education be accessible to as many of our youth as possible.”

Rico and Crystal live in Juneau; Kyle lists his hometowns as Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau.

IMG_2759

Rico and his sister, Crystal, run Trickster Company.

Rico graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. Today he and his sister, Crystal, run Trickster Company, an innovative graphic design and art gift shop in Juneau promoting Alaska Native creativity.

“I went to school in Philadelphia. It was a culture shock for a long time,” Rico says. “I missed being home with family, but I kept in mind that my culture and my family raised me up all my life. That’s where I got my strength. Having salmon strips and a bit of herring eggs really helped.”

So did being able to practice art that connected him to home, a pursuit he continues today through Trickster and serving on the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. After graduating from college, he worked as a cultural specialist with Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and went on to help start the Institute’s art department, serving as its director for a few years before founding Trickster with Crystal.

“Trickster is on the right path,” Rico says. “We’d like to see it become a stable staple of modern indigenous design throughout Alaska.

“When I graduated from college, I thought I was next going to go to law school; I ended up finding my passion as a creative professional. The degree gave me perspective, a cross-cultural experience and an understanding of the Western world.

“Pursuing your passion, wherever you find it, is powerful,” Rico says. “It’s important for Native people across Alaska. We row together.”

IMG_2674

Crystal Demientieff-Worl

A 2013 graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Crystal holds a bachelor’s of fine arts in studio arts with an emphasis in jewelry metalsmithing. “Financial support and encouragement from the Foundation helped me advance,” she says.

“I’ve worked various jobs – as a barista, as a college campus recruiter, in student activities. Today I’m proud to say I’m my own boss! Starting Trickster Company with my brother, Rico, allows us to accomplish several goals, including engaging our community through art, education, entrepreneurship and social justice.”

Leaving Alaska for college was among her biggest challenges: “I’m very close to my home, our ancestors’ foods, and my family. But the education and connections I gained were well worth it. Being away strengthened my bond to my family’s history and the stories they passed on to me.”

Her plans include earning a master’s in fine arts in Northwest coast arts and culture. “I want to open more shops and engage with more emerging artists,” Crystal says. “And I want to travel the world, sharing my artwork and the stories of Alaska Native artists, especially indigenous women.”

Her advice to other Foundation scholarship students: “Make your ancestors proud! Remember who they were and what they survived so that you could have choices.”

Kyle Worl

Kyle Demientieff-Worl

Foundation scholarships allowed Kyle to attend school full-time and pursue his commitment to advocating for Tlingit, his Alaska Native language.

“I changed my major several times,” he recalls. He eventually chose a degree that stems from his passions – to speak Tlingit fluently, teach the language, and help with language revitalization.

Kyle believes in volunteering. During his years at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he served as treasurer, co-chair and president of the Native Student Council. He’s been involved as a coach or official with Native Youth Olympics and attended the Arctic Winter Games and the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics as an athlete. He recently coached the Anchorage team competing in the Native Youth Olympics. He trained daily for the 2017 World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which took place in July in Fairbanks.

Kyle regularly visits schools and holds workshops to encourage Alaska Native youth to take part in the Native games. He credits his time with Native Student Council for helping him gain leadership ability as well as insight into the importance of his education to foster positive change.

His advice for success in college: Be involved with your campus and community. “I felt a greater purpose in my education by volunteering and working with various Native organizations,” he says.

Doyon Foundation is pleased to announce the 2017 Our Language grant awardees. After careful consideration, the selection committee chose eight proposals from among an impressive round of 19 applicant organizations. The awarded projects include community language classes, language app development, language learning through song and dance, curriculum development and summer camp activities.

“The 2017 Our Language grant awardees are an outstanding group dedicated to ensuring the ancestral languages of the Doyon region continue on for future generations,” says Allan Hayton, director of the Foundation’s language revitalization program.

2017 Our Language Awardees

Chalkyitsik: A project to revitalize the Draanjik Gwich’in language. The Chalkyitsik tribe seeks to add to and enhance language teaching in the school by creating language learning opportunities in the community. The project will compile lessons into book form for current and future learners.

Circle: This curriculum development and language teaching project, “Diiginjik Tr’oonta’, Holding On To Our Language,” will be a collaboration of the Circle Tribal Council, Danzhit Hanlaii Corporation, the community and Circle School. Instructor Mary Groat, assisted by Margaret Henry-John and Audrey Fields, will seek to “encourage youth to embrace, love, learn and take pride in their beautiful traditional language.” The project will offer classes throughout the summer in different locations around the community.

Grayling: This project will utilize traditional songs and dance to practice and learn the Holikachuk language. Language teachers will also teach in the classroom. The project will have two gatherings to bring Elders together and share the dances the community has learned.

Nenana: The Summer Youth Fish Camp is an annual program to connect young people with Athabascan culture and language. The Lower Tanana language is the most endangered of all the Doyon region languages, and this program is essential to instilling in younger generations the knowledge and traditions of the ancestors. This program is part of a larger community plan to address the challenges of language and culture loss.

Northway: A proposal to build a language app for the Née’aaneegn language of Northway to both preserve and teach the language. This project will be using technology developed by Native Innovation, a company based in Arizona. The app allows users to search for words in Née’aaneegn and provides the English translation, or vice-versa. It is an open source technology that will allow continued entries for no additional cost.

Nulato A project partnership with summer youth employee program to interview Elders on stories and traditional beliefs & culture. The interviews will be transcribed and available for use in to the community and for future language projects. The project will also encourage greater interaction between Elders and youth through weekly cultural outings (fishing, berry picking, tea gathering), singing and dancing, language classes, and monthly presentations by youth of what they have learned.

Ruby: This project will consolidate past language efforts and develop materials to be used by young learners. The project will begin by identifying and learning 30 essential words and phrases. They will then hold a weekly meeting to go over what they have learned, and then identify an additional 30 new words and phrases. These words and phrases will be recorded, and developed into flash cards and other materials for learners.

Tanana: This project will create video recordings of Elders speaking conversational Denaakk’e, as well as documenting traditional food gathering, medicinal plant use, and cultural activities. These videos will be used to develop pilot lesson plans for use in classrooms. The project aims to generate enthusiasm and impetus for continued language use in the school and community.

“All of these projects together embody the great hope we have for our languages, and how the languages can contribute to the success and wellbeing of our communities,” Allan shares. “It was a difficult task for the selection committee to narrow down their selections to this group of eight awardees. We thank everyone for applying, and we hope communities will submit their proposals to multiple funding organizations.”

Specifically, Doyon Foundation recognizes Arctic Village, Anvik, Dena’ Cultural Heritage Education Institute, Eagle, Hughes, Koyukuk, McGrath, Nikolai, Telida, and Tetlin, for their commitment to language revitalization.

About the Our Language Awards
The 10 ancestral languages of the Doyon region are all severely to critically endangered, and the Our Language grant program was developed to support the revitalization of these languages. Doyon, Limited originally established the language grant program in 2012. The Foundation’s language revitalization program now administers the grant program.

About the Language Revitalization Program

Due to the rapidly decreasing health of creative and fluent Native language speakers, the Native languages within the Doyon region are not being passed on quickly enough to ensure their survival. There is an urgent need to promote and foster language opportunities for non-speakers.

In 2009, Doyon Foundation created the language revitalization committee to respond to this need, and began creating a region-wide language revitalization program that would address one of the Foundation’s vision elements for a “Strong Demonstration of Native Traditional Language and Culture.”

In 2012, the Doyon, Limited board of directors, along with full support from Doyon President Aaron Schutt, agreed with the language revitalization committee and awarded start-up funding to establish the language revitalization program.

For more information about the grants or the program, please visit www.doyonfoundation.com, or contact 907.459.2048 or foundation@doyon.com.

The Alaska Native Artist Resource Workbook is produced by the Alaska State Council on the Arts in partnership with The CIRI Foundation to assist Alaska Native artists in furthering their artistic careers.

Click HERE to view the handbook.

Editor’s note: Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jennie Irwin, who passed away on January 18, 2017. Jennie is pictured below in several of the photos from the Nenana Fish Camp.

The Nenana Native Association and Toghotthele Corporation hosted their annual Fish Camp July 18 – 29, 2016. The camp, organized by Janet Allen, Jeri Knabe and Amanda Salmon, and staffed by Kelly Ann Burke, Tracy Snow and Lynn Puryear, was open to all. Children and families from neighboring communities and many from the “non-Native” community attended the camp. Doyon Foundation’s Our Language grant and Doyon, Limited’s Daaga’ Awards were among the funders for this year’s Fish Camp, which promotes Lower Tanana Athabascan values of knowledge and respect for culture and heritage.

Lower Tanana language was a cornerstone of this year’s camp, and the children learned the names for parts of the human body, greetings, familial names, and how to identify many different animals in the language. They also had a great time singing songs in their ancestral language loudly and with confidence.

Parents have reported that their children have retained the knowledge from the camp – and are now sharing with the community. Carol Thomas shared, “I really enjoyed talking with my granddaughter about what she had learned during each day.” Lilly O’Brien, parent of two attendees, said, “I think my girls learned this year – they learn more and more every year.”

“I am confident that if you asked my kids if they would rather spend two weeks at fish camp – or two weeks at Disneyland – that they would choose Fish Camp.” – Tracy Snow

Camp attendees also went berry picking, took boat rides, learned camping and safety skills, and made many crafts. All attendees – kids, staff, elders and parents – truly enjoyed all aspects of Fish Camp. The kids enjoyed the games, the field trips and the food. The adults enjoyed talking with the kids about what they had learned. Adults also took pride in the fact that their children are now singing at cultural events and encouraging others to do so.

Attendees talked about goals for next year, including having kids stay at camp during bad weather to get a feel for what fish camp is “really” like during less-than-favorable conditions. They would also like to put additional focus on camping skills, such as setting up camp, collecting wood, tanning hides or collecting the birch bark for baskets. Parents would like their children learning skills from the beginning (collecting materials) to the end (finished product).

Each year families enjoy coming together at “Toghotthele,” which means “mountain that parallels the river,” to learn the language, music, and ways of the ancestors. Tracy Snow, staff and parent of four attendees, shared, “I am proud that my kids can sing and dance and speak at cultural events, and that they enthusiastically ask others to participate too.”

For more information on the Our Language grants or Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization program, please visit www.doyonfoundation.com or contact Allan Hayton at haytona@doyon.com or 907.459.2162.

First Alaskan Institute Elders & Youth Conference will be hosted in Fairbanks this year on October 17-19, 2016.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

WWW.FIRSTALASKANS.ORG

ELLATONUCHUK

EY FLYER (002).pdf

Next Page »