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.

Continuing a lifetime of language work

Ruth Ridley and John Ritter

Ruth recording lessons with John Ritter at the Yukon Native Language Centre

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.

Ruth Ridley is a fluent speaker of the Eagle, Alaska, dialect of the Hän Athabascan language. She has been a language champion for many years, following in the footsteps of her late mother Louise Paul. Ruth’s lifetime work of transcribing and translating Hän language began when she was a child. “I started off doing transcriptions for Hän language that mom recorded with John Ritter (of the Yukon Native Language Centre),” she explains.

Ruth Ridley

Ruth at home with sewing projects

Ruth was brought up by her parents Louise and Susie Paul in a mining camp just downriver from Eagle. “We grew up in Coal Creek mining camp. Our families lived there, summer and winter,” Ruth shares. “My mom’s parents were Eliza and Joe Malcolm in Eagle, and my dad’s parents were Elizabeth and Paul Josie in Old Crow.” Ruth has many good memories of growing up in the Eagle area. “There are creeks with grayling, and beaver ponds, and lots of porcupine, and lots of moose, caribou, and a lot of grizzly bear,” she says.

Ruth sometimes spent all summer with her grandparents. “We would go to fish camp with my grandma and grandpa and they spoke Loucheux or Gwich’in. My grandma didn’t speak English, so we had to speak to her in Hän, and then she would talk back to us in Gwich’in. So that’s how we learned too,” Ruth recalls.

Over the years, Ruth has maintained language connections with her Hän and Gwich’in-speaking relatives in Canada, attending workshops in both Dawson City and at the Yukon Native Language Centre (YNLC) at Yukon College, Whitehorse. “My dad’s sister was Edith Josie, who did lot of language work in Old Crow,” Ruth says.

Ruth has been involved in Hän language work since the late 1970s when she collaborated with professor Michael Krauss at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) to develop the first practical writing system for the language. She composed a collection of stories in Hän based on traditional village life, Eagle Hän Huchʼinn Hòdök, published in bilingual format by the Alaska Native Language Center in 1983. Also in that year, she served as Alaska chair of an important Athabaskan language conference held at UAF, a gathering that attracted participants from throughout Canada and the United States. She also served as principal speaker in a three-week Hän practicum offered as a part of CoLang 2016 at UAF.

Recently (2015-2016) Ruth has been a Hän language consultant for Doyon Foundation, working with YNLC linguist John Ritter to record and transcribe a set of basic Hän language lessons. These lessons will be shared first as a booklet with accompanying audio, and later posted on the internet as part of the Doyon Languages Online project, a partnership of Doyon Foundation and 7,000 Languages.

On the importance of creating language lessons such as these, Ruth shared, “I think it would be easier to speak in sentences than just one word at a time. And that way kids can look at the words and they could pronounce it, like my grandchildren they say they’re hungry and they’re thirsty in Hän.”

Ruth feels language is important because “you could really find out about your culture and the kind of person you are, if you could understand and speak your language. I think it’s important that people learn where they come from and where they are going.”

Ruth is looking forward to sharing these lessons with learners. “I guess the biggest challenge is to get started and get going in the right direction,” she remarks. “If they could get started with these lessons then they’ll know which way they’re supposed to go.”

Ruth is also curious about the next steps of posting the lessons online through the Doyon Languages Online project. “I’m just waiting for them to get on the internet to see how people like the language, or how useful they would be for teaching themselves on the computer,” she says.

According to the Alaska Native Language Center, “Hän is the Athabascan language spoken in Alaska at the village of Eagle and in Yukon Territory at Dawson. A writing system was established in the 1970s, and considerable documentation has been carried out at the Alaska Native Language Center as well as at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse.”

For more information about how to get copies of Ruth’s Hän language lessons, or to learn more about the Doyon Languages Online project, please contact Allan Hayton at 907.459.2162 or haytona@doyon.com.

Sharing Language through Children’s Books

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 contact our language program director at haytona@doyon.com. You may also learn more about our language revitalization program on our website.

jamie-traillLanguage revitalization is important to Jamie Marunde. “Our Upper Tanana ways of life are changing so much and one part of our culture that we can always have and share is our language. It’s also a lot of fun to learn and practice,” said Jamie, who is the daughter of Glen and Cherie Marunde of Northway, Alaska. She lived in Northway for 19 years and has spent the past 10 years between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Jamie is a former Doyon Foundation scholarship recipient, receiving support for her associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and MBA. She currently works at Doyon, Limited as the operations manager, and is also the chair of Northway Natives, Inc., where she is the youngest elected member.

Earlier this year, Jamie was one of 13 Alaskans honored with a 2016 First Lady Volunteer of the Year Award. She was selected for the prestigious award because she has been a role model for young people in her village by living a healthy lifestyle, pursuing a higher education, and being committed to her culture and language.

Among her many activities, Jamie and her mom are leading an effort to create children’s books using the Upper Tanana Athabascan language. Upper Tanana Athabascan is spoken mainly in the Alaska villages of Northway, Tetlin and Tok, but has a small population also across the border in Canada. The indigenous name for the language is Nee’aaneegn’. The language is one of the 10 endangered Native languages in the Doyon region. Learn more about these languages and efforts to revitalize them on the Foundation website.

“My mom wanted to start making the books for her grandson and was translating our Upper Tanana words under English words in English books already,” Jamie said. “We came up with the idea to create our own Athabascan books for our own Athabascan youth.”

Jamie’s mom writes the words and double checks everything with Elders and other fluent speakers to make sure it is accurate. The village youth draw or color the pictures. Jamie then takes all of their work and inputs it into online software to create the book.

To date, they have created nine books, with seven readily available to purchase online at www.blurb.com/user/jamiem907. Book topics include counting from 1 – 10, body parts, common phrases, animals, bugs and weather. Future book ideas include fishing terms and family titles. Jamie said they plan to continue making as many books as possible and, in the future, would like to develop an Upper Tanana language app.

“Our goal is to create quality materials that are fun and teach our language,” Jamie said. “We are also trying to capture as many words as we can that aren’t in existing dictionaries while we have that opportunity.”