Words to remember

Athabaskan scholar co-authors dictionary'

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2001

KOYUKUK -- As a child in winter camp near the mouth of the Huslia River, Eliza Jones would fall asleep to the words of traditional Koyukon Athabaskan stories.

Night after night, while her mother sewed by the light of a coal oil lamp, Eliza and her two brothers, snug in bed rolls atop mattresses stuffed with moose hair, would listen as their stepfather spun narratives of long ago when animals were people.

''The audience was expected to respond during pauses with 'hmmmm, hmmm,''' Eliza explained over tea on an early December evening at her home in this Yukon River village.

''When he didn't hear the 'hmmms' anymore he stopped, and knows everybody is sleeping.''

The more I worked with the elders, the more I learned and the more I needed to learn. There is so much that didn't get into the dictionary, especially specialty areas like the weather and anatomy of animals.'

--Eliza Jones, co-author of the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary

The next night a new tale would not begin until the young listeners could repeat the story heard the night before. If a line was missed in the retelling, an adult added it in at the appropriate place.

''You had to be an active listener,'' Eliza said.

Those bedtime stories and the many more heard from her grandmother and others throughout her childhood growing up near Huslia are among Eliza's earliest memories.

''Our Native beliefs are inside those stories,'' Eliza said. ''It is like gospel to us. It is very much a part of my belief in living in harmony with nature, with the land, trees, water, animal and bird spirits.''

 

Eliz Jones, a 63-year-old elder and Athabaskan scholar, visits with old friends at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Dec. 1.

AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Matt Hage

Eliza, a 63-year-old elder and Athabaskan scholar, is co-author with Jules Jette -- a man who died long before she was born -- of the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. The dictionary recently was published by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Jette, a French Canadian Jesuit priest, came to Alaska in 1898, two years after his ordination. While ministering and living among the Koyukon people along the middle and lower Yukon River, he documented much of their language and culture. He died at St. Mary's Mission, Akulurak, near the mouth of the Yukon River in 1927.

Eliza was born 11 years later at Cutoff, a winter camp four miles above Huslia.

Their two lives merged with the dictionary, which is more like an encyclopedia. Each spent a quarter century chronicling traditional Koyukon culture, spiritual beliefs and knowledge of the natural world into a practical writing system and comprehensive source book.

Jette was a Roman Catholic priest. Eliza was raised Episcopalian but converted to Catholicism when she married Benedict Jones in 1959.

Eliza grew up in a traditional lifestyle, the same lifestyle adopted by Jette as a missionary priest along the middle and lower Yukon River.

Koyukon is Eliza's native tongue. Jette was considered a fluent Koyukon speaker after four years in the country.

They both carried a little notebook to collect and record language notes.

From the very beginning of his ministry in Alaska, Jette concentrated on learning the language and culture of the people he served. In addition to registering births, baptisms and marriages, he recorded the nuances of everyday life, beliefs and stories. He left behind seven bound manuscripts.

Over the years of editing and adding to Jette's manuscripts, Eliza developed a kinship to the priest.

''I felt like it was a privilege to work on his great work. At times I'd argue with him. 'Oh no, that is not the way it is.'''

Eliza recalls a story told by her late great-uncle Chief Henry. On a trip to Nulato, Henry took notice of Jette because he was the first white person he ever met who could speak the Native language.

''I think he (Jette) was a person who fit in very well with the Native community,'' Eliza said.

Eliza counts the cultural information collected by Jette early in the century as his most important contribution.

''I wouldn't have been able to have done that. He wrote about stuff I didn't even know about,'' she said, pointing out a few detailed descriptions about making firewood flint, soap and a bow drill.

Jette's manuscripts were a jumping off point for Eliza, who ''filled in the blanks'' with her knowledge and that collected from Koyukon elders. Although Jette became a fluent speaker, there were dialectical differences he didn't hear or wasn't exposed to, said Eliza, and a lot of phrases and verbs he didn't know.

Eliza turned to her elders for direction as she continued the project.

''The more I worked with the elders, the more I learned and the more I needed to learn. There is so much that didn't get into the dictionary, especially specialty areas like the weather and anatomy of animals,'' she said.

Eliza has lived through tremendous change during her lifetime, from the semi-nomadic lifestyle of her childhood to her now newly-modernized village home. Eliza and Benedict's log home is one of five in the village -- population 100 -- to recently get new plumbing.

''One of the things that is so devastating to the Native community is this huge, huge change in such a short, short time ... . I think that is why there are so many problems,'' she said.

Over the years, Eliza has led cross-cultural workshops to educate and promote cultural understanding. She also teaches Koyukon in the village school.

''The work I do in preserving the culture and educating others about it, that's my way of trying to help the situation, and working on the dictionary is a big part of it,'' she said.

As she talks, Eliza snips away on an empty Pilot Bread box with an old pair of shears, turning it into a dog team with driver, passenger, and three dogs harnessed together with bits of string. The cardboard creation was a favorite childhood camp toy, she explains, the harness string saved back then from the sewn ends of cloth flour sacks.

''I realize that our lifestyle as parents and grandparents has been interrupted by the influence of mainstream America and young people are not learning in the same way as people in my generation did. Our whole lives were shaped by our parents, our extended family and listening to our grandparents. There's no longer this nuclear family of people sitting down and listening to stories,'' she said.

Eliza learned to read and write at her mother's knee.

Josie Peter Olin attended St. John's in the Wilderness Episcopal Mission at Allakaket as a child and later taught her children basic reading and writing skills as they traveled from camp to camp, following the fish and game.

The informal schooling gave Eliza a head start when the territorial government set up a one-room schoolhouse in Huslia in the early 1950s. By then a young teen-ager, Eliza finished grades one through five the first year, and grades six and seven the next two years, working through the grade levels at her own pace.

Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran a school in Koyukuk where Benedict grew up, he usually accompanied his family on the trapline when school was in session. The school closed in 1942 because of World War II and remained shut until 1948.

''The BIA just completely forgot about us during that time,'' Benedict said while preparing for a training run with his championship sprint sled dog team.

Eliza and Benedict didn't allow their sketchy village educations to keep them back. Benedict worked for the Department of Transpor-tation for 25 years, retiring in 1990. Eliza retired from UAF the same year so the couple could move back to Koyukuk.

At UAF commencement ceremonies that spring she received an honorary doctor of letters degree for her work at the Alaska Native Language Center, where she taught, developed teaching materials and secondary school curricula, and presented papers at international conferences.

Following their marriage in 1959, the Joneses settled in Koyukuk, where Eliza was a volunteer health aide and Benedict was village chief. When Benedict's summer employment with DOT turned into a permanent position in 1970, the family moved to Fairbanks.

While in Fairbanks, Eliza rekindled her interest in the Koyukon language. She had become immersed in the subject in 1963 when Wycliffe Bible translators David and Kay Henry moved to Koyukuk with their three children. As a fluent Koyukon speaker, Eliza worked with Henry as a volunteer consultant.

In 1973 Eliza enrolled in a language class taught by Henry at the University of Alaska. One day Dr. Michael Krauss, director of the language center, was guest lecturer.

''He talked about how all Athabaskan languages are related,'' Eliza said. ''I was fascinated and thought, 'I want to work with this guy.'''

Eliza began visiting Krauss in his campus office, where he introduced her to Jette's manuscripts. Before long she was on staff, writing, translating, teaching and developing course materials, including a Junior Dictionary for Central Koyukon Athabaskan, published in 1978.

Every summer when school was out, Eliza would load up the family's homemade wooden riverboat with children and gear and travel more than 400 miles back to Koyukuk via the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Benedict stayed in Fairbanks to work.

Moving back to Koyukuk after two decades in Fairbanks allowed Eliza more time for her fur and skin sewing.

She fears it won't be long before the Koyukon language is not spoken fluently.

Many young Native people know the language passively, she said. If they hear someone speaking, they understand what is being said, but they will respond in English.

''Most people who speak Koyukon now can't read the language. It is not easy to read if they don't have training,'' she said.

CREDIT:AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Matt Hage

CAPTION:Eliza Jones, a 63-year-old elder and Athabaskan scholar, visits with old friends at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Dec. 1 in Fairbanks.

BYLINE1:By MARY BETH SMETZER

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

BYLINE2:An Alaska AP Member Exchange

KOYUKUK -- As a child in winter camp near the mouth of the Huslia River, Eliza Jones would fall asleep to the words of traditional Koyukon Athabaskan stories.

Night after night, while her mother sewed by the light of a coal oil lamp, Eliza and her two brothers, snug in bed rolls atop mattresses stuffed with moose hair, would listen as their stepfather spun narratives of long ago when animals were people.

''The audience was expected to respond during pauses with 'hmmmm, hmmm,''' Eliza explained over tea on an early December evening at her home in this Yukon River village.

''When he didn't hear the 'hmmms' anymore he stopped, and knows everybody is sleeping.''

The next night a new tale would not begin until the young listeners could repeat the story heard the night before. If a line was missed in the retelling, an adult added it in at the appropriate place.

''You had to be an active listener,'' Eliza said.

Those bedtime stories and the many more heard from her grandmother and others throughout her childhood growing up near Huslia are among Eliza's earliest memories.

''Our Native beliefs are inside those stories,'' Eliza said. ''It is like gospel to us. It is very much a part of my belief in living in harmony with nature, with the land, trees, water, animal and bird spirits.''

Eliza, a 63-year-old elder and Athabaskan scholar, is co-author with Jules Jette -- a man who died long before she was born -- of the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. The dictionary recently was published by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Jette, a French Canadian Jesuit priest, came to Alaska in 1898, two years after his ordination. While ministering and living among the Koyukon people along the middle and lower Yukon River, he documented much of their language and culture. He died at St. Mary's Mission, Akulurak, near the mouth of the Yukon River in 1927.

Eliza was born 11 years later at Cutoff, a winter camp four miles above Huslia.

Their two lives merged with the dictionary, which is more like an encyclopedia. Each spent a quarter century chronicling traditional Koyukon culture, spiritual beliefs and knowledge of the natural world into a practical writing system and comprehensive source book.

Jette was a Roman Catholic priest. Eliza was raised Episcopalian but converted to Catholicism when she married Benedict Jones in 1959.

Eliza grew up in a traditional lifestyle, the same lifestyle adopted by Jette as a missionary priest along the middle and lower Yukon River.

Koyukon is Eliza's native tongue. Jette was considered a fluent Koyukon speaker after four years in the country.

They both carried a little notebook to collect and record language notes.

From the very beginning of his ministry in Alaska, Jette concentrated on learning the language and culture of the people he served. In addition to registering births, baptisms and marriages, he recorded the nuances of everyday life, beliefs and stories. He left behind seven bound manuscripts.

Over the years of editing and adding to Jette's manuscripts, Eliza developed a kinship to the priest.

''I felt like it was a privilege to work on his great work. At times I'd argue with him. 'Oh no, that is not the way it is.'''

Eliza recalls a story told by her late great-uncle Chief Henry. On a trip to Nulato, Henry took notice of Jette because he was the first white person he ever met who could speak the Native language.

''I think he (Jette) was a person who fit in very well with the Native community,'' Eliza said.

Eliza counts the cultural information collected by Jette early in the century as his most important contribution.

''I wouldn't have been able to have done that. He wrote about stuff I didn't even know about,'' she said, pointing out a few detailed descriptions about making firewood flint, soap and a bow drill.

Jette's manuscripts were a jumping off point for Eliza, who ''filled in the blanks'' with her knowledge and that collected from Koyukon elders. Although Jette became a fluent speaker, there were dialectical differences he didn't hear or wasn't exposed to, said Eliza, and a lot of phrases and verbs he didn't know.

Eliza turned to her elders for direction as she continued the project.

''The more I worked with the elders, the more I learned and the more I needed to learn. There is so much that didn't get into the dictionary, especially specialty areas like the weather and anatomy of animals,'' she said.

Eliza has lived through tremendous change during her lifetime, from the semi-nomadic lifestyle of her childhood to her now newly-modernized village home. Eliza and Benedict's log home is one of five in the village -- population 100 -- to recently get new plumbing.

''One of the things that is so devastating to the Native community is this huge, huge change in such a short, short time ... . I think that is why there are so many problems,'' she said.

Over the years, Eliza has led cross-cultural workshops to educate and promote cultural understanding. She also teaches Koyukon in the village school.

''The work I do in preserving the culture and educating others about it, that's my way of trying to help the situation, and working on the dictionary is a big part of it,'' she said.

As she talks, Eliza snips away on an empty Pilot Bread box with an old pair of shears, turning it into a dog team with driver, passenger, and three dogs harnessed together with bits of string. The cardboard creation was a favorite childhood camp toy, she explains, the harness string saved back then from the sewn ends of cloth flour sacks.

''I realize that our lifestyle as parents and grandparents has been interrupted by the influence of mainstream America and young people are not learning in the same way as people in my generation did. Our whole lives were shaped by our parents, our extended family and listening to our grandparents. There's no longer this nuclear family of people sitting down and listening to stories,'' she said.

Eliza learned to read and write at her mother's knee.

Josie Peter Olin attended St. John's in the Wilderness Episcopal Mission at Allakaket as a child and later taught her children basic reading and writing skills as they traveled from camp to camp, following the fish and game.

The informal schooling gave Eliza a head start when the territorial government set up a one-room schoolhouse in Huslia in the early 1950s. By then a young teen-ager, Eliza finished grades one through five the first year, and grades six and seven the next two years, working through the grade levels at her own pace.

Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran a school in Koyukuk where Benedict grew up, he usually accompanied his family on the trapline when school was in session. The school closed in 1942 because of World War II and remained shut until 1948.

''The BIA just completely forgot about us during that time,'' Benedict said while preparing for a training run with his championship sprint sled dog team.

Eliza and Benedict didn't allow their sketchy village educations to keep them back. Benedict worked for the Department of Transpor-tation for 25 years, retiring in 1990. Eliza retired from UAF the same year so the couple could move back to Koyukuk.

At UAF commencement ceremonies that spring she received an honorary doctor of letters degree for her work at the Alaska Native Language Center, where she taught, developed teaching materials and secondary school curricula, and presented papers at international conferences.

Following their marriage in 1959, the Joneses settled in Koyukuk, where Eliza was a volunteer health aide and Benedict was village chief. When Benedict's summer employment with DOT turned into a permanent position in 1970, the family moved to Fairbanks.

While in Fairbanks, Eliza rekindled her interest in the Koyukon language. She had become immersed in the subject in 1963 when Wycliffe Bible translators David and Kay Henry moved to Koyukuk with their three children. As a fluent Koyukon speaker, Eliza worked with Henry as a volunteer consultant.

In 1973 Eliza enrolled in a language class taught by Henry at the University of Alaska. One day Dr. Michael Krauss, director of the language center, was guest lecturer.

''He talked about how all Athabaskan languages are related,'' Eliza said. ''I was fascinated and thought, 'I want to work with this guy.'''

Eliza began visiting Krauss in his campus office, where he introduced her to Jette's manuscripts. Before long she was on staff, writing, translating, teaching and developing course materials, including a Junior Dictionary for Central Koyukon Athabaskan, published in 1978.

Every summer when school was out, Eliza would load up the family's homemade wooden riverboat with children and gear and travel more than 400 miles back to Koyukuk via the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Benedict stayed in Fairbanks to work.

Moving back to Koyukuk after two decades in Fairbanks allowed Eliza more time for her fur and skin sewing.

She fears it won't be long before the Koyukon language is not spoken fluently.

Many young Native people know the language passively, she said. If they hear someone speaking, they understand what is being said, but they will respond in English.

''Most people who speak Koyukon now can't read the language. It is not easy to read if they don't have training,'' she said.



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