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:

 

Doyon Foundation, with the support of the golfers, sponsors, planning committee, staff and volunteers, held another successful Morris Thompson Memorial Golf Classic June 22 – 23 in Fairbanks, Alaska. In addition to raising money for the Foundation’s Morris Thompson Scholarship Fund, the popular annual event also honored the memory of the late Morris Thompson.

“Morris was an enthusiastic and tireless supporter of education, and we are honored to hold this event in his memory,” said Doris Miller, Foundation executive director. “The Morris Thompson Scholarship Fund was established to provide scholarships to students who exhibit the qualities we admired most in Morris – vision, dedication to excellence, exemplary leadership and integrity.”

The 17th annual event kicked off Thursday, June 22 with a skills tournament warm-up at Chena Bend Golf Course on Fort Wainwright, followed by a reception and Calcutta at Wedgewood Resort. See the skills tournament results on the Foundation website.

AS MF

Aaron Schutt and Marissa Flannery announce the new competitive scholarship for law students at the Calcutta reception.

The reception featured two very special moments. The first was when Doyon, Limited President and CEO Aaron Schutt took the stage with his wife, Marissa Flannery, to announce the establishment of an endowment for a new competitive scholarship for aspiring young lawyers.

Both graduates of Stanford Law School, the couple partnered with the Doyon, Limited board to help establish the new scholarship fund, making a five-year commitment to getting the scholarship in place.

“I know very well the cost and benefits a legal degree can have for Native students,” said Flannery, who said she and her husband each graduated with more than $100,000 in student loan debts. “We’ve never regretted our choice, and we hope that other students will make that choice.”

Annie

Student speaker Annie Sanford addresses reception guests.

Student speaker Annie Sanford of Tok, Alaska, then shared her story, giving the audience a real-life example of how their support makes a difference in the lives of students.

“Let’s see if I learned anything from my communications class I took last semester,” Sanford quipped at the start of her speech, drawing encouraging laughter from the filled room.

“Normally I don’t volunteer myself to give speeches, but I felt it was important to express how important of a role Doyon Foundation has played in my higher education,” continued Sanford, who is pursuing an associate’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and hopes to join the university’s very competitive radiologic technology program in 2018. Her post-graduate plans include staying in Fairbanks to give back to the community that has given her so much.

“I feel like Doyon Foundation is a third proud parent in my pursuit of a higher education,” Sanford said. “I want to thank Doyon Foundation and their sponsors for supporting not only me but students across Alaska pursuing our educational dreams.” Read more about Sanford on the Foundation’s blog and see a video of her speech on the Foundation YouTube channel.

The evening concluded with a spirited Calcutta, where teams and members of the audience bid on the teams they thought would win the golf tournament the next day. Always a popular event, the Calcutta brought in more than $50,000, which was split between the winning bidders and the Foundation scholarship fund.

The festivities continued on Friday, June 23 with the golf tournament, which drew 33 teams of four players each. By early afternoon, the teams had finished the 18 holes at Chena Bend and were celebrating at the golf banquet.

2017 winning team

First-place team at the 2017 Morris Thompson Memorial Golf Classic.

Congratulations to the first-place team comprised of Rick Boyles, Dan Clark, Rob Graves and Scott Jepsen. See the full list of winners on the Foundation website.

“Thank you to the golfers, sponsors and volunteers for bringing your great energy and fun to the tournament this year,” Miller said. “We couldn’t have asked for better conditions and fundraising results. Thanks for your continued support and generosity.”

This year marked the 17th year of the Morris Thompson Memorial Golf Classic. Since inception, the event has enabled the Foundation to award 173 students with Morris Thompson scholarships totaling $370,180.

For more information on Doyon Foundation or the Morris Thompson Memorial Golf Classic, visit www.doyonfoundation.com.

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

Zhehk’aa – Family
Shizhehk’aa naii gwiintł’oo goovihtsai’. – I cherish my family very much.

Listen to an audio recording.

August

Hai’ (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.

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.

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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.

Three women – each of them helped by Doyon Foundation scholarships – earned doctorates in 2017, demonstrating their commitment to lifelong learning and the sustaining powers of heritage. The Foundation is honored to have helped them along their path to graduation.

“Our three Ph.D. graduates this year are inspiring role models and incredible assets for our state,” says Doris Miller, the Foundation’s executive director. “There are many needs and opportunities in our region, and we are pleased to play a part in growing our own to fill these roles. We at Doyon Foundation are honored to support our past, present and future students, and we are proud of each and every one of them.”

Anna Sappah: “Discipline is simply remembering the goal”

Anna’s birth parents are Margaret Aucoin Meseck of Chignik and Donald Meseck. Her maternal grandmother is Katie Andre of Chignik. Anna’s adopted parents are Joseph and Agnes Deer. Joseph was from Chevak; Agnes was the daughter of Olivia and Andrew Johnson of Holy Cross. Anna’s hometown is Anchorage. 

Anna“I’m a passionate advocate for addiction treatment and recovery services,” says Anna. She graduated in April 2017 with a doctorate in psychology from Alaska Pacific University.

A longtime employee and volunteer in the behavioral health field, Anna’s policy and advocacy work focuses on people confronting both substance abuse and mental health disorders. She held a graduate student scholarship awarded by the Foundation.

“Work-life balance was the most difficult challenge while I was a full-time student,” she recalls. “Staying grounded in my family and culture helped.”

Anna is a clinical supervisor at Alaska Wisdom Recovery, an Anchorage-based center for substance use disorder and mental health treatment. Her plans include continuing in her current position, working toward certification as a licensed professional counselor, and eventually becoming a university professor focusing on addiction studies.

Anna believes in self-care that includes managing time and priorities: “I adore spending time with our four kids and 14 grandchildren.” She dances and sings with the Northern Lights Intertribal Pow Wow Drum and enjoys beading, berry picking, gardening, and fishing with a family business, Sappah and Son Guide Service. She’s active with local recovery groups.

Her advice to other students: Take time to take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Talk to others if you’re feeling overwhelmed and follow your course syllabus like a roadmap to success: “Discipline is simply remembering the goal.”

Charleen Fisher: “Always strive for your dreams!”

Charleen’s parents are Margaret Ann Fisher of Beaver and the Rev. Scott O. Fisher of Falls Church, Virginia. Her maternal grandparents are Charlotte and Salvin Adams; her paternal grandparents are Kitson and John R. Fisher. Charleen is a member of the Foss family of Iliamna and Pedro Bay. Her family includes her husband, Darrel Salmon; daughters Shelby, Julia, Allyson and Shani; and grandson Hunter. Her hometown is Beaver. 

CharleenOn track to graduate in August, Charleen is pursuing a doctorate in Indigenous Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Her discipline aims to reframe, reclaim and revitalize Indigenous knowledge systems. “It’s a new field that researches our own rich, beautiful cultures and documents them properly without bias,” Charleen says. In May, she earned an education leadership certificate from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Her Ph.D. path was a long one, Charleen recalls. She taught in K-12 schools for more than 10 years and spent nine years as a principal/teacher. Remaining committed to her doctorate and leadership credential meant choosing part-time work and giving up full-time positions that she enjoyed – a disruption, she says, that both she and her family learned to accommodate. She has held several positions with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, where she works today as director of the Native American Career and Technical Education Program.

Charleen credits the Foundation with providing scholarship help so that she could achieve her education goals. She also encourages students to apply for funding that helps them present their work at conferences, as she did while at UAF. When she’s not focused on school, she enjoys time with family, including her grandson, Hunter. “Always strive for your dreams!” she says.

LaVerne Demientieff: “It was comforting to know I could rely on Doyon Foundation”

LaVerne Demientieff is the daughter of the late Rudy and Alice (Frank) Demientieff of Holy Cross and Anvik; she is the granddaughter of Stanley Demientieff and Edith Bifelt, and Joe Frank and Marcia Reed. LaVerne was born in Fairbanks and grew up in Nenana and Anchorage.

LaVerne_Bio_PicA single parent who worked throughout college, LaVerne received Foundation scholarships leading to a doctorate in social work in 2017 from the University of Utah. “The financial support went a long way,” she says. “It was comforting to know I could rely on Doyon Foundation to help when I needed it.”

LaVerne, who is among the Foundation’s board of directors, believes that learning is healing. “Remember who you are and be who you are in all the different situations you find yourself in,” she advises. “Build relationships with peers, instructors and staff along the way. You never know what door those relationships might open for you.”

LaVerne is a clinical associate professor in social work at UAF, where she has taught since 2006. Earning her doctorate brought to mind the many faces of family and friends who over the years encouraged her or helped emotionally and financially.

“I’m grateful to each and every one,” she says. “No one succeeds alone. Raising my son and being so busy was a challenge. He sacrificed just as much as I did so that I could earn my degrees. I believe we did this together.”

LaVerne enjoys walking, hiking, fishing and berry picking with family and friends. Her plans include becoming fluent in her Athabascan language, Deg Xinag, and continuing to focus on wellness and healing efforts with Alaska Native communities. Her research interests are language, wellness, healing and trauma. She is UAF faculty adviser to the Alaska Native Social Work Association and a member of the language revitalization committee of the Doyon Foundation board. “I’m honored and grateful to be able to give back to my community and people,” she says.

The Doyon Foundation 2017 Graduate Yearbook is now available on the Foundation website!

2017 grad yearbook collagePacked with photos and profiles, the yearbook celebrates our 2017 graduates including:

  • 1 pre-school
  • 36 high school
  • 3 certificates
  • 22 associate’s degrees
  • 19 bachelor’s degrees
  • 5 master’s degrees
  • And 3 doctorate degrees!

Download your copy of the 2017 Graduate Yearbook now!

Have an addition or correction? Please send them to foundation@doyon.com or call 907.459.2048.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!