group of about 30 people gather around a campfire near the Kenai
River and spend the morning telling stories, laughing, swatting
mosquitoes and speaking to each other in Dena'ina about adding
more wood to the fire and the tea they are brewing.
that respect, the scene is one that could have happened hundreds
of years ago.
closer inspection, however, the cell phones and tape recorders the
people are carrying, the manufactured clothing they are wearing
and the cars parked not far from the fire pit make it clear the
scene is not a part of history.
point of the gathering was to recapture history, preserve it and
make it a part of modern culture. The gathering was part of a Dena'ina
language class at Kenai Peninsula College in late May and early
June and sponsored by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks.
purpose of it is to preserve a language nearing extinction.
language has very few speakers," said Gary Holton, assistant
professor with the language center and an organizer of the institute.
"Basically the people don't have enough opportunity to speak
said Dena'ina, like many Athabascan languages, has been disappearing
because in many cases the only people who know it are elderly. As
they die, the knowledge of the language dies with them.
of the elders, when they were young, attended government schools
under a Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to "Americanize"
Natives, including eradicating their language.
Evanoff traveled from Nondalton, where she has lived since 1950,
to attend the class. She grew up in Pedro Bay hearing her grandmother
speak Dena'ina and said her husband was fluent in the language,
but they didn't use it.
one really speaks it in Nondalton," she said. "They don't
even understand it. My own kids don't speak it. And whose fault
is that? It's the parents' fault.
We never taught it to our kids because when (my husband) went to
school, he was kept from speaking it. ... That's why so many people
don't want to speak it now, because they were held back from their
own language and culture."
where the language class comes in. It evolved out of the Athabascan
Language Development Institute, a program started in Fairbanks in
1998 that brought together Athabascan speakers from around the state
to teach and learn their languages.
decided to make the program more regional, so last summer language
classes were held in areas where the languages were traditionally
willingness of Kenai Peninsula College and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe
to help host the event led to the choice of Soldotna for the Dena'ina
language class, Holton said. The first year it was held at the college,
eight people registered for it.
year about 30 people attended from all over the widespread Dena'ina
region, including Tyonek, Nondalton, Lime Village and Pedro Bay
on the west side of Cook Inlet, the Kenai Peninsula and Chickaloon,
northeast of Palmer.
nice thing about having it here is a lot of people are here from
all over the region," Holton said. "To hear the language
spoken here again is something that hasn't been heard in many years.
... For these speakers to get an opportunity to come to this region
where famous people lived, like Peter Kalifornsky, is very powerful
to them because they know those connections and respect them."
sessions like the fireside gathering on the grounds of Alaska Christian
College were spent in conversation, generally where one person said
a phrase in Dena'ina and everyone took turns repeating it. Though
usually one person leads or facilitates the session, the learning
environment is collaborative with participants looking to each other--usually
the elders--for help with pronunciation.
didn't have established instructors. Many people who are teaching
are learning it themselves," Holton said. "We can't afford
to wait 10 years to train teachers."
sessions were more lecture-oriented and covered grammar and other
linguistic elements of the language.
learning didn't end when classes were over.
spent one evening making birch bark baskets.
spending all their time together here. In a way, six hours of formal
classes is only part of what's going on," Holton said.
connections the people make are equally, if not more, important
than the classes because it means their conversations can continue
throughout the year, Holton said.
class has brought together a diverse group of participants. There
are elders who learned the language as children and have come to
pass on their knowledge, traditional college students who are taking
the class to complete a degree and others of Dena'ina descent who
want to learn the language as a way to be more in touch with their
range from teens to one man in his 90s, as well as the children
some of the participants bring along.
kids, they're learning. They want to be here. I'm happy that they're
learning," said Helen Dick of Lime Village.
didn't speak the language for a long time or teach it to her children
because her husband was white, she said. After coming to the class,
Dick said, she wants to start teaching her granddaughter Dena'ina
words whenever she talks to her on the phone.
Sagmoen, originally from Stony River, said she took the class because
some of her older relatives can speak Dena'ina and she wanted to
communicate with them. She is 19 now and moved to Anchorage when
she was in eighth grade, where she said she got "citified."
taking last summer's class she was able to say "I am Dena'ina"
to her relatives.
year, she learned more, but it is a slow process.
didn't think it would be as hard as it is," Sagmoen said.
to learn Dena'ina, or any Athabascan language, coming from an English
background is challenging.
undeniably very different from English," Holton said. "There
is nothing like it. There is nothing similar at all."
speaking Dena'ina words requires making sounds not used in English
and verb use in Dena'ina is more complicated than in English.
Dena'ina, for instance, the verb used to describe someone carrying
something changes depending on what the person is carrying.
really describes the environment and world and forces you to describe
the environment in great detail," Holton said. "Not that
you can't do that in English, but you can get away with not doing
it. Dena'ina really forces you to describe your world."
that Sagmoen has started to learn the language, she has become interested
in learning more about other areas of the culture.
I first started, I just thought I would learn how to communicate.
In the process of learning, you kind of pick up a lot of outdoor
cultural practices," she said. "... It's all interconnected.
You can do stuff without the language but it's so interconnected."
why it's so important to preserve the language, because it does
play such an integral part in Dena'ina culture, Holton said.
much is tied up in language--the way we think, the way we feel,
the way we express ourselves is filtered through our language,"
that respect, the move to preserve the Dena'ina language is interconnected
with a move to revitalize Dena'ina culture, he said.
think it's very important," Evanoff from Nondalton said. "It
makes us strong. It makes us proud of who we are. We are Dena'ina
people. We should be able to speak it and understand it and to be
proud of it."