Speaking of history

Project brings Dena’ina Kenai dialect back to life

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006


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  From left, Michael Bernard, his wife, Diane, and Wanda Reams look on as students from the Kenaitze Tribe's Head Start programs introduce themselves in Dena'ina at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on March 7 during the Arctic Winter Games. Teaching the Dena'ina Kenai dialect to kids is a key task in preserving the language for generations to come. Photo courtesy of Kenaitze Tribe

Michael Christian sits at his computer work station Friday. Christian has transferred over 110 hours of recordings from Kenai dialect Dena'ina language speakers onto the computer, and spends his days cleaning and cutting the audio into clips for use on an instructional Denaina Web site.

Photo by John Hult

Soldotna” does not come from Russian. The language from which the River City pulls its moniker was spoken for more than 1,000 years before a single Russian boot crunched peninsula snow: Dena’ina.

“Ts’eldatnu,” when spoken in Dena’ina, sounds remarkably similar to the anglophile version of “Soldotna.”

You’ve probably never heard a Kenai dialect speaker say it, though. Since the deaths of Peter Kalifornsky, Fedosia Sacaloff, Bertha Monfor and other Kenaitze Tribe elders, there is no one alive who uses the local Dena’ina dialect in day-to-day conversation.

The tribe, along with Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas, language specialist Michael Christian and a host of others, is out to change that.

Children in the tribe’s Head Start program now learn Dena’ina songs and stories culled from two years of language revitalization efforts. Tribal services are working the dialect into their programs and greeting callers and visitors in the language. Boraas and Christian, using recordings of Kalifornsky and others, are building a Web site that will essentially allow anyone in the world to give themselves an introduction to the dialect.


Lara Olsen sings a song in Dena'ina during a presentation March 7 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center during the Arctic Winter Games.

Photo courtesy of Kenaitze Tribe

According to Sasha Lindgren, language program director for the Kenaitze Tribe IRA, that is a far cry from the situation a few years ago. At that point, there was a real danger that the spoken dialect would disappear as a conversational language for tribe members, forever relegated to audio archives, songs and the written works of Peter Kalifornsky.

“In the past, we’ve tried a number of language revitalization projects,” Lindgren said. “They worked, but they were small. We would have a class that would teach 30 or 40 words, but we never got into grammar or verb structure.”

In other words, past projects weren’t able to bring participants any closer to holding a conversation. Grammar and verb structure are essential to any language, but particularly important — and difficult — in Dena’ina.

“It is among the most structurally complex languages in the world,” Boraas explained. “Part of (building the Web site) is trying to convey some of that structure to someone who is sitting at a computer on the Internet, to understand how these verbs are built.”

That complexity is confirmed by fairly recent history. Dena’ina is part of the Athabascan language family, which includes Navajo, a language so complex the U.S. Military enlisted speakers to form a code with it to disguise radio-transmitted secrets during World War II. Dena’ina is just as complex.

“Dena’ina children learned that, just like Navajo people did, without flash cards, computers, classroom instruction — just by hearing it,” Lindgren said.


This illustration is from a children's book, "Ggagga Dghili Jenghiya (The Bear Went Over The Mountain)" that is used as a Dena'ina language teaching tool. The book, a collaborative effort between illustrator Becky Crawford, editor Dr. Gary Holten, musicians Pauline and Steve Hibson and Wanda Reams, includes illustrations of the bears journey over the mountain to see what he could see. Turns out, all he could see was the the other side of the mountain -- dgheli yach'en ghi'n.

Navajo, however, still has 100,000 speakers in the United States. Dena’ina, by contrast, a language represented by four dialects and 900 tribal members in and around Cook Inlet, is spoken by about 70 people. Many speak the Nondalton area’s dialect (Inland), and a handful more speak variations on the other three, Upper Inlet, Outer Inlet and Illiamna. None converse in the Kenai dialect of Kalifornsky, Monfor and Sacaloff.

As Boraas sees it, that ought to concern everyone on the Kenai Peninsula.

“Most of us are not aware of a pride in our language heritage,” he said. “This remarkable, complex language, the language of this place, that’s definitely something to be proud of.”

Native pride


From left, Michael Bernard, his wife, Diane, and Wanda Reams look on as students from the Kenaitze Tribe's Head Start programs introduce themselves in Dena'ina at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on March 7 during the Arctic Winter Games. Teaching the Dena'ina Kenai dialect to kids is a key task in preserving the language for generations to come.

Photo courtesy of Kenaitze Tribe

“My grandmother had to suppress her knowledge,” Lindgren explained of her own family’s experience with Dena’ina. “It got to the point that I’d ask her something and she’d say ‘I don’t know.’”

That story is a common one. Kenaitze Natives, like Natives across the United States, were punished for speaking their own language as part of the acculturation policies employed by the U.S. Department of Education from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s. Students caught speaking Dena’ina in a Kenai schoolhouse at that time had their mouths washed out with soap, were made to kneel in rock salt and in some cases beaten so badly it took days to return to school.

Kenai had a more widespread educational system than some of the peninsula’s more rural areas, which meant Kenai dialect speakers were more likely to be subjected to such harsh “integration” tactics. Kenai was also home to more English-speaking Caucasians, whereas many rural areas remained populated primarily with Dena’ina speakers during those years.

By the time Lindgren was a child, there were few to teach her the language she wanted to learn. For her to see Head Start children making the language a part of their lives gives her hope that the cycle of cultural suppression is broken.

“My granddaughter graduated from Head Start, and when I say Dena’ina words, she says, ‘That’s my Dena’ina.’ You can really see the voices of the past influencing the future.”

Grants from the Administration for Native Americans in Washington, D.C. and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council are helping produce the Dena’ina speakers of the future. The grants allowed the tribe to buy the services of Dr. Boraas last semester, but first it allowed the tribe to hire Wanda Reams as a language developer. Reams, who began her work in 2004, develops language learning tools and curriculums and works with tribal elders trying to figure out just how to make those tools as accurate as possible.

Elders speaking many Dena’ina dialects have been helpful with stories and pronunciations, Reams said.

“As I learn the language, when I’m speaking it, the elders will let me know if I’m speaking it correctly,” Reams said.

When Reams speaks with Kenaitze tribe elders, the learning experience is more hit or miss because of the history of language suppression.

“I don’t know that they have the ability to retrieve it,” she said. “But if they hear it, they can tell me, ‘Yes, that’s our dialect.’”

Reams has used the resources of the community, KPC and the Alaska Native Language Center to develop the curriculum for teaching Dena’ina to Kenaitze youth, and she also uses the teaching resources for presentations to non-Natives. She has given Dena’ina presentations at Sears and Redoubt elementary schools, among others, and was an integral part of working the language into the opening and closing ceremonies of the Arctic Winter Games.

Reams didn’t intend to become a language developer. She was offered the position two years ago when she showed up at tribal offices looking to renew her teaching certificate. Since starting, however, she’s come to understand just how valuable the work is for the community.

“I believe I am doing what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “Having met our elders, it’s very healing to be part of this.”

According to Lindgren, the feeling is reciprocated.

“She’s become a granddaughter to many people.”

Spoken worldwide

While the tribe works spread their language across the Dena’ina community, Boraas’ work will help spread the language even further — across the world.

Boraas, along with Professor James Kari of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, started recording the stories of Peter Kalifornsky in the early 1970s and has used the tapes and Kalifornsky’s writings ever since in anthropology and Dena’ina language courses.

The stories also are used during the Dena’ina Language Institute, a three-week summer course started three years ago at KPC. The Institute, like the Web site and much of Boraas’ work over the years, represents the joint efforts of the tribe and the academic community to preserve the peninsula’s cultural history.

Since last summer, Boraas and language specialist Michael Christian spent their time converting the recordings into digital audio files to preserve them and for use on a Web site devoted to the Kenai dialect.

The site includes grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary lessons, a section for children with clickable pictures, maps and side-by-side English to Dena’ina phrases and stories.

The digital audio archive idea, which has turned into a massive project, sparked from a Cook Inlet anthropology course Christian took from Boraas.

“Before that, I was totally ignorant about the Dena’ina people themselves, their existence,” Christian said. “After that, I became very interested in their culture. I wasn’t even planning on going into this line of work — I was getting ready to go into medical anthropology.”

The interest drove him to take part in the three-week language institute in 2004. After that, he was hooked. He started gathering the equipment to transfer the audio to computer files and the software to edit out background hisses, rumbles and awkward silences from the decades-old tapes.

Then during the 2005 Institute, he and Boraas took part in a workshop on HTML, the language used to design Web sites. The workshop taught participants how to put audio, photo, graphic and text files online, and the idea for the site came into focus.

“For me, I realized that this was the opportunity to use modern technology to put some of that language into a form that people can use to learn,” Boraas said.

Boraas enlisted Christian, and Christian began transferring the audio and making clips for use in Web lessons. A preliminary version of the site should be up by early summer.

Last fall Boraas previewed the site at a gathering in Nondalton. It was there he got his most gratifying memory since starting work on the site. An 8-year-old child and a few friends approached him as he set up a computer and asked what he was doing. Boraas gave the child the mouse.

“They sat for a half hour clicking on words, clicking on images. During that time, some of the elders came by and just sat, watching. I sensed that they understood that this was one tool they could use to perpetuate this language. That was a defining moment for me.”

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