A group of about 30 people gather around a campfire near the Kenai River and spend the morning telling stories, laughing, swatting mosquitoes and speaking to each other in Dena'ina about adding more wood to the fire and the tea they are brewing.
In that respect the scene is one that could have happened hundreds of years ago.
Upon closer inspection, however, the cell phones and tape recorders the people are carrying, the manufactured clothing they are wearing and the cars parked not far from the fire pit make it clear the scene is not a part of history.
Even though it was happening in modern times Wednesday morning, to be exact the point of the gathering was to recapture history, preserve it and make it a part of modern culture.
The gathering was part of a Dena'ina language class happening at Kenai Peninsula College for the past three weeks. The class is put on by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and ends today. The purpose of it is to preserve a language that has been nearing extinction.
"The language has very few speakers," said Gary Holton, assistant professor with the Alaska Native Language Center and an organizer of the institute. "Basically the people don't have enough opportunity to speak it."
Andrew Balluta of Newhalen, Gladys Evanoff of Nondalton and Kim Aragon-Stewart of the University of Alaska Fairbanks talk about a digital photo Kenai Peninsula College professor Alan Boraas made during the class. Newhalen and Nondalton are villages on the north side of Lake Iliamna on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Holton said Dena'ina, like many Athabascan languages, has been disappearing because in many cases the only people who still know it are elderly and as they die, their knowledge of the language dies with them. When they were young, many now-elders attended government schools ruled by a Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to "Americanize" Natives, including eradicating their language.
Gladys Evanoff attended the class from Nondalton, where she has lived since 1950. She grew up in Pedro Bay hearing her grandmother speak Dena'ina and said her husband was fluent in the language, but they didn't use it.
"No one really speaks it in Nondalton," she said. "They don't even understand it. My own kids don't speak it. And whose fault is that? It's the parents' fault. ... We never taught it to our kids because when (my husband) went to school he was kept from speaking it. ... That's why so many people don't want to speak it now, because they were held back from their own language and culture."
That's where the language class comes in. It evolved out of the Athabascan Language Development Institute, a program started in Fairbanks in 1998 that brought together Athabascan speakers from around the state to teach and learn their languages. Organizers decided to make the program more regional, so last summer language classes were held in areas where the languages were traditionally spoken.
The willingness of KPC and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe to help host the event led to the choice of Soldotna for the Dena'ina language class, Holton said.
The first year it was held at KPC, eight people registered for it. This year Holton said about 30 people are attending from all over the widespread Dena'ina region, including Tyonek, Nondalton, Lime Village and Pedro Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet, the Kenai Peninsula and Chickaloon northeast of Palmer.
"The nice thing about having it here is a lot of people are here from all over the region," Holton said. "To hear the language spoken here again is something that hasn't been heard in many years. ... For these speakers to get an opportunity to come to this region where famous people lived, like Peter Kalifornsky, is very powerful to them because they know those connections and respect them."
Morning sessions like the Wednesday fireside gathering on the grounds of Alaska Christian College, where many out-of-town participants are staying, are spent in conversation, generally where one person says a phrase in Dena'ina and everyone takes turns repeating it. Though there usually is one person leading or facilitating the session, the learning environment is very collaborative with participants looking to each other usually the elders for help with pronunciations.
"We didn't have established instructors. Many people who are teaching are learning it themselves," Holton said. "We can't afford to wait 10 years to train teachers."
Afternoon sessions are more lecture-oriented and cover grammar and other linguistic elements of the language. Classes end at 4 p.m. each day, but that doesn't mean learning ends then. On Tuesday, for instance, participants spent the evening making birch bark baskets.
"They're spending all their time together here. In a way, six hours of formal classes is only part of what's going on," Holton said.
The connections the people are making are equally if not more important than the classes because it means their conversations can continue throughout the year, Holton said.
The class has brought together a diverse group of participants. There are elders who learned the language as children and have come to pass on their knowledge, traditional college students who are taking the class to complete a degree and others of Dena'ina descent who want to learn the language as a way to be more in touch with their heritage. Ages range from teens to one man in his 90s, as well as the children some of the participants bring along.
"These kids, they're learning. They want to be here. I'm happy that they're learning," said Helen Dick of Lime Village. She didn't speak the language for a long time or teach it to her children because her husband was white, she said. After coming to the class, Dick said she wants to start teaching her granddaughter Dena'ina words whenever she talks to her on the phone.
Shauna Sagmoen, originally from Stony River, said she took the class because some of her older relatives can speak Dena'ina and she wanted to communicate with them. She is 19 now and moved to Anchorage when she was in eighth grade, where she said she got "citified." After taking last summer's class she was able to say "I am Dena'ina," to her relatives. In this year's class she has learned even more, but it is a slow process.
"I didn't think it would be as hard as it it," Sagmoen said.
Trying to learn Dena'ina, or any Athabascan language, coming from an English background is challenging, to say the least.
"It's undeniably very different from English," Holton said. "There is nothing like it. There is nothing similar at all. There's really no language that works this way at all. That's what's hard for people coming at it from an English point of view it's just a different world."
Just speaking Dena'ina words requires making sounds not used in English and verb use in Dena'ina is significantly more complicated than in English. In Dena'ina, for instance, the verb used to describe someone carrying something changes depending on what the person is carrying. If a pen is being carried, one word is used; if it's a cup of water, another word is used.
"Dena'ina really describes the environment and world and forces you to describe the environment in great detail," Holton said. "Not that you can't do that in English, but you can get away with not doing it. Dena'ina really forces you to describe your world."
Now that Sagmoen has started to learn the language, she has become interested in learning more about other areas of the culture.
"When I first started I just thought I would learn how to communicate. In the process of learning, you kind of pick up a lot of outdoor cultural practices," she said. "... It's all interconnected. You can do stuff without the language but it's so interconnected."
That's why it's so important to preserve the language, because it does play such an integral part in Dena'ina culture, Holton said.
"So much is tied up in language the way we think, the way we feel, the way we express ourselves is filtered through our language," he said.
In that respect, the move to preserve the Dena'ina language is interconnected with a move to revitalize Dena'ina culture, he said.
"I think it's very important," Evanoff from Nondalton said. "It makes us strong. It makes us proud of who we are. We are Dena'ina people. We should be able to speak it and understand it and to be proud of it."
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