126_DLO Language Champion Promotion_FB-INI’m so proud of Doyon Foundation for its work with our languages”

Paul Mountain is the son of Josephine Rita (Nickoli) and Simeon Charley Mountain Senior. Paul’s maternal grandparents are Maria Catherine (K’elestemets) and Paul (Naakk’oos) Nickoli. His paternal grandparents are Vivian (Sipary) Peter and Cosmas Mountain. Cosmas’ parents are Charley and Mary Mountain.

Paul’s Alaska Native language is Denaakkenaage’, spoken by Koyukon Athabascan people of Nulato and Kaltag. He graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1991, and holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics with a minor in Alaska Native languages. He is a past recipient of Doyon Foundation scholarships.

“I have always been intrigued by the use of language to communicate,” says Paul, who is tribal administrator for the Nulato Tribal Council.

Paul’s earliest memories include time spent with his grandmother, Maria Nikoli, who spoke only Koyukon Athabascan and helped him gain a good foundation for understanding the language. His mother, uncles and aunts were instrumental in teaching the language.

“The Koyukon language is so interesting,” Paul says. “There are so many different ways to express yourself without saying too much.” For instance, when someone says “emaa,” the word may translate as “ouch” or “it hurts.” The same word may be used today as an idiom, meaning “I feel bum.” For health care providers who may be unfamiliar with Koyukon, its flexibility can be frustrating, Paul says.

As in other languages, some Koyukon words fall out of use. “Songs were made in the past using words even the fluent speakers sometimes don’t understand fully. There’s a certain amount of poetic license on the part of the songmaker,” Paul says.

Connecting words to form sentences was an important step in advancing his fluency. “I think a lot of people know lots of words and what they mean, but what they lack is how to form complete sentences. Repetition was a really good way to learn,” he says.

To remain active in language learning, Paul takes part in a Native singing and dance group based in Nulato. The dance group is sponsored by Nulato Tribal Council in partnership with Andrew K. Demoski School. In his role as tribal administrator, Paul is supportive of a Nulato Tribal Council project to re-translate workbooks into the Lower Koyukon dialect. But as Native language speakers are being lost to old age, he knows that among the biggest challenges to language learning is a lack of people available to speak with and learn from.

“It’s really difficult,” he says. “I’m so proud of Doyon Foundation for its work with our languages.”

Paul plans to continue working with the Native dance group, which includes members as young as 8 years old, to develop their understanding of the meaning behind songs. “It’s so entertaining to help them,” he says. “I’d also like to help as they grow older and learn to make songs themselves.”

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for Holikachuk, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Benhti Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Hän, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Deg Xinag, Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Nee’anděg’ (Tanacross) and Née’aaneegn’ (Upper Tanana). The project officially launched in summer 2019 with the first four courses, now available for free to all interested learners.

Doyon Languages Online is funded by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), awarded in 2016, and an additional three-year grant from the Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP), awarded in 2017.

About Language Champions

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we believe it is important to recognize people who are committed 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, or sign up to access the free Doyon Languages Online courses here.

 

118_People Promotion_Keating_FB_IN

Born in the community of Holikachuk on the north bank of the Innoko River in west-central Alaska, Elizabeth Keating is an Elder taking part in Doyon Languages Online, a Doyon Foundation project that develops online language learning for nine of the 10 Alaska Native languages of the Doyon region.

Elizabeth’s ancestors include parents Louise (Andre) and Paul Keating, and grandparents Chief and Lizzie Alexie. Elizabeth writes that names of other family members were lost when self-assigned names of Alaska Native people were converted to English. Many substitutions were in place by the early 1900s.

Holikachuk is an Athabascan language intermediate between Deg Xinag and Denaakk’e (Koyukon). It is Elizabeth’s first language, spoken to her by the grandparents who raised her from birth. Holikachuk is among Alaska Native endangered languages at risk of falling out of use as speakers age or switch to another language.

“My language makes me who I am on all levels of being,” Elizabeth says. “It affects how and what I think about life and the world around me.”

Early photos depict the community of Holikachuk as a collection of log buildings amid low hills, tall grass and muskeg bogs. Anthropologists working from stone tools found in the area believe that people have dwelled at Holikachuk since prehistoric times despite regular springtime flooding. In 1963 residents voted to move west to Grayling on the Yukon River, where king salmon runs and regular barge visits helped support a community.

Today Elizabeth contributes to language revitalization by recording words in Holikachuk for Doyon Languages Online. The project is a partnership between Doyon Foundation and 7000 Languages, a nonprofit supporting endangered language learning through software donated by Transparent Language. The Foundation released a Holikachuk course as part of the Doyon Languages Online launch this summer. The course, along with courses in Gwich’inDenaakk’e and Benhti Kenaga’, is now available at no charge to all interested language learners through the Doyon Foundation website.

Recording in Holikachuk is challenging. “I lost the use of my language except for some words and phrases,” says Elizabeth, who lives in Anchorage. “I am relearning. There are no fluent speakers of Holikachuk left, so the work of recording is critical.”

“I truly appreciate Doyon Foundation for getting grants to do this work. I appreciate the patience and understanding of everyone with Doyon Languages Online.”

Doyon Languages Online is engaging: Photos, videos and hints are available, and learning is reinforced with explanations of grammar and culture. Each segment undergoes full review by speakers, linguists, and the staffs of Doyon Foundation and 7000 Languages.

“My grandparents did not speak English,” Elizabeth recalls. Her father, whom she saw often but did not live with, spoke only English and so Elizabeth learned English too. Living in two languages was a kind of balancing act.

These days, she’s semi-retired and eager to teach her language. She has posted phrases on a private Facebook site for Grayling/ Holikachuk and offered to teach a language-learning class at Loussac Library in Anchorage.

“I make myself available to anyone who’s interested,” she says. “It’s a big concern to me that we no longer have fluent speakers left. I know effort is being made at the village level; I hope more will be done.”

Doyon Languages Online is developing introductory online lessons for Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Deg Xinag, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aanděeg’ (Tanacross), Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Hän, Holikachuk, and Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana).

Doyon Languages Online is funded by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), awarded in 2016, and an additional three-year grant from the Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP), awarded in 2017.

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we would like to recognize people who are committed 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.

“Native languages are important to all Alaskans”

Beth LeonardBeth Leonard is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage where she directs the Alaska Native Studies Program. She holds a doctorate in cross-cultural and Alaska Native studies in addition to degrees in linguistics and language and literacy. In 2014, she traveled to New Zealand as a Fulbright scholar.

Her parents are James Dementi of Nenana/Shageluk and the late Jean Dementi, originally from Ventura, California. Her maternal grandparents are Charles and Ruth Aubrey of Ventura, California; her paternal grandparents are Charlie Dementi of Dishkaket and Lena Phillips Dementi of Shageluk.  

Immediate family members include her husband, Michael Leonard; daughter, Samantha Jean Quinn, and son-in-law, Richard Quinn; and Jeanette Dementi, her father’s second wife, originally from Michigan.  

“I didn’t learn Deg Xinag growing up, so I didn’t understand and appreciate my culture as much as I could have,” Beth says. “Language helps connect me with my immediate and extended family. It strengthens my identity as a Deg Xit’an person.”

Beth was in her early 30s when she began learning the language from her father, James Dementi. “He was very patient,” she recalls. The two recently worked together to contribute translations for a new Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation building in Bethel. Elders who taught community-based language and cultural activities, sometimes including audioconferenced university courses, were also instrumental to her learning. These Elders included Raymond Dutchman, Hannah Maillelle, Katherine Hamilton, Louise Winkelman, Edna Deacon and Lucy Hamilton. Beth also learned from audio recordings of Belle Deacon of Grayling, Grace John of Shageluk, and others who were recorded during the 1970s Alaska Native Oral Literature Project.

“Because Alaska Native languages are so different from English, they’re often considered hard to learn,” Beth says. Learning to speak authentically can be a challenge; everyday activities may be expressed in several ways, so that some variations are more suited to certain situations or seasons than others.

“Fear of making mistakes has been among my biggest challenges,” Beth says.

She’s grateful for chances to learn with other language students and Elders: “I wish I’d learned more of the language as a younger person. Immersion programs, like those in Anchorage and Fairbanks, among other sites, are signs that young people are eager to learn Native languages.”

“I’m thankful for Elders and young people who take on this work,” she says. While administrative duties have limited her teaching lately, she’s eager to help guide efforts for Native language learning at the university level and beyond, including language revitalization work undertaken by some members of the Alaska Native Studies Council.

A class in Athabascan linguistics taught by Professor James Kari at the University of Alaska Fairbanks inspired Beth’s interest in learning Deg Xinag. His course and others introduced her to the history of ways that indigenous languages had been suppressed and marginalized. She went on to work with Alice Taff, a professor from the University of Alaska Southeast, who’s since retired. Alice contributed to a grammar of Deg Xinag and, with the help of educator Donna MacAlpine and several Elders, developed a Deg Xinag online dictionary. More recently, Alice and Donna recorded stories by Hannah Maillelle, Ellen Savage and Edna Deacon, available through a University of Alaska Southeast website.

Instrumental work in Deg Xinag has been done by many community members and educators, including Malinda and Marilyn Chase of Fairbanks/Anvik, George Holly of Soldotna/Holy Cross, and Jeanette Dementi, who helped translate the Lord’s Prayer and developed language-learning games, songs and other materials. Jeanette also recorded Beth’s father’s story about butchering a moose.

Sonta Hamilton Roach from Shageluk and Dr. LaVerne Demientieff from Fairbanks/Holy Cross have been active most recently in Deg Xinag language teaching initiatives, including facilitating the “Where Are Your Keys” method. LaVerne also began hosting a telephone language learning group in fall 2018.

Immersion methods of language learning, along with listening to recorded stories and conversations, are useful strategies for Beth because she’s not distracted by writing. “I found that I became too dependent on the writing system when I should have been developing my listening skills,” she says. For language learning, active listening can help with memorizing and pronunciation.

“Native languages are important to all of us Alaskans, as they carry thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom,” Beth says, adding that the languages embody worldviews that contrast with Western ways.

Virtues such as respect and reciprocity and the importance of right relationships are a foundation for many indigenous peoples in the way they speak about – and with – other people, the land and waters, and other beings that share the world. “These values are carried through Alaska Native languages in complex, academic ways,” Beth says.

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we would like to recognize people who are committed 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.