Hearing her history

Woman works to revive Dena'ina language

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2005


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  Donita Peter teaches Dena'ina culture to students of all ages. Here, she talks to youths at Kenai Alternative High School. Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Donita Peter teaches Dena'ina culture to students of all ages. Here, she talks to youths at Kenai Alternative High School.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Duyeq' dgheli k'eli dghili.

No, the words above are not a typographical error. Nor has the editor fallen asleep on the job.

According to Donita Peter, a Dena'ina language specialist, it is a Dena'ina phrase which roughly translates in English to: "The chief sang a mountain song."

The chief's representatives would repeat this phrase to let everyone know the tribe was getting together for a good purpose. As the people were gathering, they would have a positive feeling that would set the tone for the next few days, for the duration of the gathering. Everyone would be cheerful and meet the group's objectives in a positive way.

Donita Peter was born in St. Louis, Mo. In 1965, when she was 7, she and her mother returned to Tyonek, her mother's home village. The people in Tyonek spoke Dena'ina, their Native language, "except in school," Peter said.

"It was very different for me, but wonderful. The people lived the traditional life, no running water, no electricity. But there was a connectedness, like a big family. Everyone spoke and lived in the Dena'ina way, keeping tradition."

According to their tradition, Peter's maternal grandmother, Alexandra Chuitt, and her maternal aunt, Nellie Chickalusion, were responsible for teaching the little girl her Native language, songs, stories and traditions.

"I loved to listen to my grandmother sing and tell stories," Peter said. "Everything she described was so detailed. She used special words so you could see everything. She was very eloquent and the words she chose were so precise."

The women taught Peter the ways of her people, who are part of the Athabascan culture, the most widespread in Alaska. They showed her how to use the abundant resources at hand to live their traditional life. They told her that their women and men were fit and strong. Peter said it was common for the people to go from Tyonek to Anchorage in one day.

"The people had to be fit and healthy, well balanced physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually to survive."

Peter's Aunt Nellie taught her to be proud of the intellectual strength of her ancestors. She told her that the Dena'ina language is complicated and intricate and that it takes learners a while to grasp it. When the first explorers came to Cook Inlet, all of the Native people in the region spoke Dena'ina, with different areas having their own dialect. It was not uncommon for her people to be fluent in five different Native languages

"My aunt told me the explorers were not equipped to learn such a complicated and highly intelligent language, so it was easier for our people to learn the explorers' language in order to communicate with them," Peter said.

Peter found the culture so unique and the language so profound that she was encouraged to go on learning and studying more and more. Her aunt and grandmother were happy to teach her the Dena'ina way, but they had expectations of her.

"I'm not telling you this so you can forget," her aunt told her one day.

"You must learn it and teach it. Pass it on."


Donita Peter sings the Alaska flag song in the Dena'ina language with Marge Mullen during Kenai Peninsula College's commencement ceremony last spring. It was the first time the song was performed in Dena'ina.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

The people were proud of their language and culture, but in modern times, the children were sent out of the villages to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. The children were punished for speaking their Native language in the schools. Those children are the people who now are elders in the villages. Many of them are still trying to deal with the traumatic experiences that resulted when they spoke their Native tongue at the schools. When village schools were built, the children were again forbidden to speak anything but English in school. As a result of those policies, the Dena'ina language is now in the "nearly extinct" category, with only about 60 fluent speakers remaining.

Peter learned a great deal from the elders in her village, but she also attended the village school at Tyonek. She recognized the good job the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District did in broadening her learning. Proof of its efficiency was the fact that she graduated in 1993 from Kenai Peninsula College.

"We can and have combined Western teaching and traditional Dena'ina teaching to create who we are today. In fact, we must receive a combined Western and traditional education to be successful in today's world," Peter said.

Her aunt's directive to "pass it on," was deeply planted in Peter's heart. She appreciated what the elders had done to educate her in the language and culture of her people and she felt the best gift she could give back to them was to teach what she learned to others. She has been doing that for years.

Peter worked for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe for four years developing the Kenai dialect of the Dena'ina language and teaching traditional songs and dances to preschool through high school students. She worked closely with area Dena'ina elder and speaker Peter Kalifornsky on a language preservation project before he died.

She said Kalifornsky advised her to, "Keep teaching the Dena'ina language in songs and stories. If anyone criticizes you, don't listen."

She has followed his advice. She has taught classes in Nondalton. She tutored Peter Kalifornsky's classes in the Kenai dialect with Alan Boraas at Kenai Peninsula College. She continued teaching courses in the Dena'ina language and mythology at KPC. Peter strives to teach subjects that put the language into the context of culture.

As a natural progression from teaching, Peter's focus is now on creating curriculum materials to assist educators in teaching the Dena'ina language and culture at various levels. She is engaged in developing those materials as part of her position at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.


Donita Peter, far right, sings with (left to right) Michelle Ravenmoon, Sondra Stuart, and Theodore Chickalusion following a Dena'ina native language class held at Kenai Peninsula College last summer. The event brought together elders and youths from across the Dena'ina region and was an opportunity to share language and culture.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

"I love working at the Heritage Center because I can be in touch with the cultural bearers and the elders," Peter said.

The first step in reviving the language is to acquire knowledge from the remaining elders who fluently speak it. There are only around 60 of them, from places like Kenai, Nondalton, Tyonek and Pedro Bay. They are eager to help revitalize their language and culture. Peter hopes to involve elders from Eklutna, Ninilchik, Knik and Anchorage in the project, as well.

The revitalization project is a collaborative one. Included in the effort are the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula College.

Peter is very happy to have Dr. Jim Kari from the Alaska Native Language Center working with her. Kari has worked on preserving indigenous languages in Alaska since 1972.

The language center has around 250 cassette tapes in its archives that Kari recorded of elders speaking the Dena'ina language.

Peter recently received word from the center that it has digitized the recordings and transferred them to compact discs that will be made available to Peter to use in her work developing the curriculum. Now she will be looking to the remaining elders to make new tapes to develop additional materials.

"We are developing Dena'ina curriculum materials for teachers and setting the standards for the language curriculum for culturally relevant school systems," she said.

"The curriculum covers preschool through college. It's a big task and we are on the frontier of it. The state has set cultural standards and guidelines for strengthening indigenous languages in Alaska. However, the standards have never been implemented.

"We hope this project will set new levels for other indigenous language groups to reach."

Peter is involved in creating a written language from one that has for centuries only been oral. The main focus is developing materials that pertain to basic Dena'ina language learning. Peter hopes to complete this project by 2006.

Curriculum is being developed that will meet the state requirements for two years of study at the high school level and also a middle school course to cover one quarter dealing with language and culture.

"Reviving the language also means reviving cultural attitudes and traditions," Peter said.

"If we can lay a solid foundation with this language program, the culture and traditions will never cease to exist."

Educating the teachers to implement this curriculum will happen in collaboration with the Anchorage and Fairbanks universities through their departments of education.

A great deal of interest and support has been generated for the project. The Alaska Native Heritage Center received a Dena'ina language preservation grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

"It's from the interest generated by Heritage Center President and Chief Executive Officer John Ross, that this grant was received. His interest played a large part in the generation of this collaboration project. Ross is a Kenaitze from Kenai," Peter said.

The Alaska Native Language Center at UAF received a Department of Education grant to support the development and collection of materials and the creation of a format for other indigenous language groups to follow in development of their language programs.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe also received a $600,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans through the Federal Department of Health and Human Services to assist in creating materials for the Kenai dialect of Dena'ina. There are four dialects — the inland used in and around Nondalton, the outer used in the Kenai area, the upper from Tyonek, Eklutna and Knik and the Iliamna. The dialects are separate but related and there is some crossover among them.

"I find it interesting that more than 60 percent of the 625,000 residents of Alaska live in the Dena'ina language and culture area, but the Dena'ina language and culture has been the most neglected in the state," Peter stated.

"But now, there is a growing interest in the language and the ancient history of the people."

Archaeological studies have found evidence the Dena'ina have lived in the Cook Inlet area for at least 1,200 years. Oral legends and stories told by the elders document their presence for 40,000 years.

"The more people learn about the Athabascan culture, the more they realize its importance. The language is so inspiring in song and dance. I want to pass an appreciation of the culture to others and the understanding that the Dena'ina are very unique in the Athabascan family," Peter said.

Peter is not alone in her enthusiasm for the language and culture of her people. Her daughter, Fiona Peter, is now a Headstart teacher carrying on in the footsteps of her great-grandmother by teaching the culture and language and passing on the traditions.

There's another phrase Peter likes to quote from the Dena'ina tradition, a blessing the chief would give at the end of a happy gathering: "Whatever you do in life, I hope you succeed in good health."

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