The late Peter Kalifornsky, a Native elder that made significant contributions to keeping the Dena'ina language alive once wrote a story called "Education."
In that story he said education was "To prepare school students for the reality of today's world. To relearn. To tell about what remains of the past. That it is their country from the ancient past and that they are Dena'ina."
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe recently received a three-year, $584,000 Administration for Native Americans grant that will allow them to do just that to "educate" using a variety of projects all designed to revitalize the Dena'ina language.
"Our goal is to have a tribe of lifelong learners and teachers of Dena'ina culture and language," said Sasha Lindgren, language program director.
Dena'ina is part of the Athabascan or Na'Dene language family. There are five dialects for the Dena'ina language: Upper Inlet, Iliamna, Inland, Outer Inlet and Seldovia.
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is one of three Native organizations to receive funding to work on revitalizing the Dena'ina language. The Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage both received grants from the Department of Education as well.
The approach of the three programs varies in different ways, but all are the same in that they attempt to maintain and perpetuate the language by teaching it to younger generations.
"We want to reconnect with our tribal youth, and language is our strongest tool for that," Lindgren said.
One of her initial objectives is to develop six curriculum units on Dena'ina language to be implemented into the Kenaitze's Head Start and Cultural Heritage programs.
Lindgren said the curriculums will be modeled after those currently used by Pauline Hobson, a Dena'ina language instructor from Nondalton, and Alan Boraas, a Kenai Peninsula College professor of anthropology who co-taught the course "Dena'ina Language and Culture" with adjunct professor of Native studies Donita Peter this past semester at KPC.
Both curriculums heavily use immersion techniques. Students are taught conversation skills, such as how to introduce themselves in Dena'ina, as well as several other topics such as numbers, colors, animal names, days of the week, body parts, clothing, plants, household items and food.
"We'll begin by teaching the teachers and grow from there," Lindgren said.
She said she also hopes more age appropriate curriculums with strong additional emphasis on culture can be developed to complement the current curriculums.
To assist Lindgren in carrying out these tribal goals, two new positions language archivist and language developer have been created through the grant and filled by qualified applicants.
Brett Encelewski of North Kenai was hired as the language archivist. His primary duties include collecting, transcribing, digitizing and archiving Dena'ina language materials.
"It's a huge task," he said, but added that it was a task he's wanted to do for practically his whole life.
Encelewski explained that as a youth he felt estranged from his Native heritage, until his mother encouraged him to attend the Kenaitze's Susten Camp, which provides cultural heritage exploration for youths during the summer. While there, Encelewski was exposed to Native words, history and concepts.
"I just had never had that, and it created a lifelong passion and interest in my culture," he said.
Now he said he hopes to inspire future generations through the Dena'ina language in the same way he was inspired.
"My goal is, through cooperation and sharing, to make sure tribal members and others in the community have access to what everyone else has," Encelewski said in regard to archived language materials.
Wanda Reams of Soldotna was hired as the language developer. Her primary duties include collecting materials related to the Dena'ina language and preparing word lists, pronunciation keys and written and audio-visual teaching materials, as well as assisting in language camps and festivals.
Reams has over the past few years participated in several language courses including the Denaqenaga Language Ladder, an Alaska Native Language Center language mentor and apprenticeship program, and received her teaching certificate through the tribe.
However, she has a story similar to Encelewski's when it comes to finding her path in life.
"Growing up I was ashamed of being Native," Reams said. However, upon learning of her shame, her grandmother sternly told her she should be proud of who she was.
She said hearing her normally mild-mannered grandmother speak so adamantly about their heritage had a profound affect on her and changed how she felt about her Native roots.
"I see that shame in a lot of kids today, but being Dena'ina is a good thing and our children need to know it," Reams said.
"Learning the language is a large part of strengthening their identity, their value and their sense of place," she added.
Lindgren said in many ways Encelewski and Reams represent the Kenaitze tribe's labor coming to fruition.
"The tribe gave to them and now they are giving back to the tribe," she said.
Lindgren said it also proves that claims that the Dena'ina language is dead or dying couldn't be more wrong.
"I prefer to think of our language like a flower," she said. "It was lying dormant waiting to bloom again. Now it's alive and growing. It just took time."
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