College course passes on Dena'ina language

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kenai Peninsula College has been exponentially adding distance courses over the last few years, but an "Introduction to Dena'ina Language" course being taught at the Soldotna campus this semester should perhaps be referred to as a temporal course.

"It relates more to distance over time than space, since we're primarily using Peter Kalifornsky and other long-dead elders to teach us," said KPC Anthropology professor Dr. Alan Boraas. "I'm just the facilitator."

The Dena'ina language is one of 11 Alaska Athabascan languages, and there are four primary dialects of Dena'ina: Inland, Iliamna, Upper Inlet and Outer Inlet. It was spoken by the Dena'ina people, the original inhabitants of Southcentral Alaska, who ranged from Seldovia in the south, to Chickaloon in the northeast, Talkeetna in the north, Lime Village in the northwest and Pedro Bay in the southwest.

However, many modern ancestors of the Dena'ina can no longer can speak the language, primarily as a result of language extinction policies -- some still in place as recently as the 1960s -- which severely punished Natives for speaking in Dena'ina.

"Children, if they spoke the Native language in most parts of Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, would have their mouths washed out with soap or be beaten," Boraas said.

Still, a few Dena'ina -- like Kalifornsky -- retained the knowledge of their language. Kalifornsky, who died 17 years ago, helped create the written version of the Dena'ina language, by recording as many "sukdu," or traditional stories, as he could remember, as well as translating them into English.

He also wrote original works in Dena'ina, including a number of autobiographical works. Near the end of his life he worked with Boraas and linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center to compile his collected works into "A Dena'ina Legacy -- K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky" which was published in 1991 and contains 147 bilingual Dena'ina-English writings.

"A lot of the material is recordings from Peter that are several years old," Boraas said referring to the Web-based portion of the curriculum, broken down into a sound system of consonants and vowels, vocabulary, stories and place names.

"We use the audio and breakdown the sentences and grammar," Boraas said.

Just as important as learning the subtle nuances of the language is learning about the different way of thinking conveyed in the language.

"We're learning the vocabulary and how the grammar works, but we're also learning about the culture," he said.

As just one example, Boraas cited the story "Put Up Fish," in which there is a line that translates to "A fish swam to me," which he said is a different idea than "I caught a fish."

"It's a different world view," Boraas said. "It gives the fish a will."

There are other cultural components that are learned from the stories, Boraas said, such as looking at the number of stories that end with "Then it's for winter."

"It conveys that life is about getting ready for winter and lean times, but it also conveys getting ready for the future," he said.

Fifteen students representing a diversity of ages and cultural backgrounds are enrolled in the current course, and Boraas said each class taught is a positive step toward Dena'ina language revitalization.

"The goal now is primarily reading and writing," he said, "and hopefully one day speaking will come."

To learn more about the Dena'ina language, visit the interactive Web page for the class at:

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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