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.

“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:

 

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.

If you are planning to apply for a language revitalization grant or submit an RFQ for the Doyon Languages Online project, be sure these fast-approaching deadlines are on your calendar!
For additional information on the Doyon Languages Online RFQ, contact Allan Hayton at haytona@doyon.com or 907.459.2162.
For more information on the language grant, contact Sommer Stickman at stickmans@doyon.com or 907.459.2048.

Did you Pick. Click. Give. when you filled out your PFD application this year? If so, post this badge to your Facebook page or add it to your email to let everyone know you are supporting students and saving languages with Doyon Foundation!

If you haven’t yet made a Pick. Click. Give. pledge, please consider doing so today. Less than 5 percent of Alaskans are giving this year, and nonprofits across the state are feeling the decline (including Doyon Foundation). We need your help to reach our Pick. Click. Give. goal!

Already filed for your PFD? Don’t worry – it is easy to log back into your PFD application and add a Pick. Click. Give. donation. Need help? Check out these simple step-by-step instructions.

From all of us here at Doyon Foundation, thank you for your support!

Doyon Foundation is pleased to welcome Nathan Feemster, who was hired in December as the Doyon Languages Online project manager. In this role, Feemster is responsible for the coordination, implementation and evaluation of the Doyon Languages Online project.nathan-for-web

The Doyon Languages Online project is a partnership with 7000 Languages, a nonprofit that supports endangered language learning partially through software donated by Transparent Language. Funded with a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans, the project aims to create a total of 280 introductory online lessons for five of the endangered Doyon languages: Holikachuk, Denaakk’e, Benhti Kenaga’, Hän, and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa. Ultimately, the Foundation aims to create online courses for all of the Doyon region languages.

Originally from Seward, Alaska, Feemster has a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). He previously worked as a substitute teacher for the Anchorage School District, and was a production assistant for the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Feemster was inspired to apply for the job at Doyon Foundation by Ruth Ridley, whom he met while pursuing his undergraduate degree at UAF. “Her nearly 50-year endeavor to help create a place for the Hän language in the future inspired me to apply to Doyon Foundation,” Feemster shared. “Through my work with Doyon Foundation, I hope to support her dream and the dreams of the many who work with the Athabaskan Dene languages. I am humbled to be working on the Doyon Online Languages project and I look forward to the many learning opportunities it offers.”

Outside of work, Feemster enjoys helping his community and is an active volunteer. “I’ve done everything from planting plots for the Stone Soup Community Gardens, to training cats at the animal shelter in my home town,” he said.

A self-described “lifelong learner,” Feemster said he fills his spare time with learning opportunities or projects, which most recently include a bed frame and epublishing a small “chose your own adventure” book.

For more information on Doyon Foundation and the Doyon Languages Online project, visit www.doyonfoundation.com.

As a first step since receiving the three-year, $900,000 Native American Language Preservation and Maintenance grant from the Administration for Native Americans, Doyon Foundation is seeking applications for a project manager for the Doyon Languages Online project.

“We are very excited to start working on this project and are looking for a dynamic individual to join our team,” said Doris Miller, Foundation executive director.

As part of the Doyon Languages Online project, a total of 280 introductory online lessons will be created for five of the critically endangered Doyon languages: Holikachuk, Denaakk’e, Benhti Kenaga’, Hän, and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa. The lessons will be made widely available to language teachers and learners in Alaska and throughout the United States. Language teachers will also receive training in using the lessons in local educational settings, from schools to homes to community events.

Under the supervision of the Foundation’s Language Revitalization Program director, the Doyon Languages Online project manager will be responsible for all stages of the Doyon Language Online project, to include project development, implementation, oversight, and grant compliance requirements. In this exciting position, the project manager will design a curriculum template, oversee content creation and delivery, lead community outreach, and handle grant reporting.

Applicants should have at least three years experience in education or related field, a bachelor’s degree in education or related field, at least two years demonstrated experience managing federal grant awards and grant reporting requirements, and experience or studies in Alaska Native languages or linguistics.

View the job description for more information on essential functions; required knowledge, skills and abilities; minimum qualifications and other details. Interested applicants are encouraged to apply online. The job application closing date is November 1.

For more information on Doyon Foundation and the Doyon Languages Online project, visit www.doyonfoundation.com or contact Doris Miller, executive director, at millerd@doyon.com or 907.459.2050.