More than 100 Natives and non-Natives alike gathered in Kenai for the second annual Dena'ina Festival, which brought people together from across the region and beyond to celebrate Native heritage and culture this past weekend.
The festival, hosted by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, came in the wake of the Dena'ina Language Institute being held at Kenai Peninsula College and hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Native Language Center.
"It's been wonderful this year," said Donita Peter, a representative of the Tyonek Tribe.
"There's so many more people involved this year. We had 40 participants in the language institute, compared to the six or seven we had last year. People have come from all over Chickaloon, Eklutna, Tyonek, Nondalton, Newhalen and others all to gather for this," Peter said.
"A long time ago, people would gather to potlatch, sing, dance and share stories, so it's very refreshing to see communities coming together again for sharing," she said.
Amber Gardner, a Kenaitze Tribe member, said, "There's been a lot of remembering about how it use to be and how we use to do. People have been sharing stories of how they feel and how this makes them feel. It's been very emotional, but in a good way."
Gardner said language was a recurrent theme throughout the week and weekend, since some Dena'ina dialects are in danger of becoming extinct. However, she said she has reason to believe there is still hope the language will rebound, due to numerous positive changes some of which occurred in herself since last year's festival.
"Last year everyone started talking in Dena'ina, but I couldn't understand them. It gave me goose bumps all over and I wanted to learn to speak it for myself. This year I was able to stand up and introduce myself in Dena'ina," Gardner said.
Michelle Ravenmoon from Iliamna Lake said she also felt her language was important to preserve.
"It's more than just words and sounds it's culture," she said.
Pauline Hobson, an instructor at the language institute, said she also has seen many positive changes.
Members of the Maori people of New Zealand perform Saturday for people attending the Dena'ina festival. The group entertained other Alaskans during a tour through the state.
Photo courtesy Alan Boraas
"I have students that have been in the program for three years that are now learning to teach the language," she said.
Hobson added that despite her work, elders are at the core of the language successes being achieved.
"Without the elders, we would be lost. They are very dedicated. Students are very demanding, always asking 'How do you say this?' But the elders are always there to answer," she said.
During Saturday's gathering at the Kenaitze waterfront property off Cannery Road in Kenai, elders took part in several ongoing activities. Some of the elders also showed they had more to contribute than just language advice.
Violet Mack and Dave Segura, both of Kenai, competed in a salmon filleting contest with fresh fish pulled from their educational fisheries gillnet. The contest was to see who could produce the best filet the fastest.
Mack, many years Segura's senior, wielded an ulu, while Segura used a fisher's filet knife. Much to the crowd's delight, Mack beat her younger competitor with time to spare.
"That's four years in a row now she's beat me," Segura said.
After the friendly competition, the crowded resumed eating from the potluck buffet featuring traditional Native and non-traditional dishes.
Adeline Raboff of Fairbanks sang the national anthem in her Native language, Gwich'in, and it bought tears to the eyes of many.
Singing and dancing also were a highlight of the gathering, and many groups performed, including the Kenaitze Chuda Cuya Drum and Jabali'ina Dance groups, the Ya Ne Aah Ah dance group from Chickaloon, and the Athabascan Tebughna dance group from Tyonek.
A special treat was the performance by the Rangimaarie Maori dancers visiting from New Zealand, or Aotearoa, the Maori word for the islands they are indigenous to. Their performance included many traditional forms of expression such as bulging eyes, waggling tongues, grimacing faces and chest beating while the men of the group performed.
"The Maori were incredible," Kenaitze member Amber Glenzel said. "We were just blown away when they first performed.
The Maori visitors said they also were enjoying themselves.
"Our Native brothers and sisters have welcomed us. Their love, respect and hospitality has been dear. It's been a very spiritual trip," Mere Clendon said.
The Maori, like Alaska Natives, faced and overcame several hardships over the last two centuries, such as disease epidemics, alcoholism and "English only" policies in their schools. As such, they were able to see many similarities with the ongoing Alaska Native revitalization movements.
"People here have told us their language is dying, but we've told them, no it was dying," Clendon said. "There's a hunger and a desire in these people, you can see it in them, and as long as they have that, their language and their culture is alive."
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