Culture, in so many words — Saving Dena’ina language helps preserve heritage

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

What do a person, a dog, a shaman effigy and a crucifix have in common?

Nothing obvious, to most people. But to traditional Dena’ina speakers, all four are in a linguistic classification that categorizes them as sharing a similar essence — of being alive, in a sense, or having a soul.

The idea doesn’t quite translate to English. It’s a facet of culture embedded in language, as subconscious as the grammatical structure a baby learns as they absorb the dialogue around them. It’s the cultural equivalent of, “You had to be there,” when the humor of a story doesn’t quite land for someone who wasn’t witness to the event being described.

Without speaking a language, without knowing it to the point where it is language — the ability create an infinite number of sentences without having heard them before — there’s a barrier to knowing the culture, as well.

“Embedded in the grammar of the language is messages that aren’t always there in the English translation. What is it that’s embedded in the grammar of language, Dena’ina in this case, that conveys a message, a point of view, a feeling, that is difficult put into English? I’m not saying impossible, but difficult. And often is lost, as they say, in translation,” said Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, while giving a presentation on empowerment through a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives Thursday at the Kenai River Campus as part of the college’s observance of American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

The problem of “lost in translation” is much more significant than just ordering something you didn’t quite expect in a foreign restaurant or the potential for making a slightly awkward cultural gaffe.

In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis holds that the structure of a language determines or significantly influences the modes of thought and behavioral characteristics of the culture in which it is spoken. So for a Native Athabascan of the Cook Inlet region, Dena’ina isn’t just the language of their people, it is a portal to the full depths of their cultural heritage.

“The relationship between language and how you organize the world is subconscious as you learn language, and would become what we sometimes call human nature, which is why one culture’s human nature is not another culture’s human nature because the language is different. You can argue all you want what human language is but it really has to do with how you understand the grammar of the language as a filter for the world,” Boraas said.

And that portal has almost been lost. According to anthropologists, Dena’ina has been one of the world’s most endangered languages. Early territorial schools in Alaska didn’t let Native students speak in their own language as a way of assimilating students to Western culture, even meting out corporal punishment for infractions. The policy was crushingly effective in Kenai and across the Cook Inlet region. Within one generation, a language that had been spoken for a thousand years was caught on the tongues of elders who were too traumatized to teach it to their children.

And there wasn’t any other avenue of education available for the youth, as there wasn’t a written version of the language at the time. By the 1970s in Kenai, less than 10 speakers of the Outer Inlet (Kenai Peninsula) Dena’ina dialect remained.

Linguist James Kari did extensive work on the language in the 1970s, helping codify a written version of Dena’ina. He and Boraas worked with the remaining fluent elders, especially Peter Kalifornsky, to preserve the language, much of it in the form of traditional stories and making recordings of the elders speaking in their Native tongue. All of that knowledge has coalesced into curriculum for language classes, such as a beginning Dena’ina class, primarily focused on vocabulary, taught this fall at KPC, and another on grammar this spring to teach how to put words together.

That’s no easy feat in Dena’ina. It’s part of the Athabascan language group, which is one of the most complex in the world. (As an indication, the Code Talkers in World War II were Athabascan speakers.) For a child growing up among fluent speakers, the language and the cultural nuances it conveys would come naturally.

“The grammar of a language is subconscious. You all knew it in your head, somehow, and it is culturally significant. Grammar influences the way we organize the world and it does so in subconscious ways,” Boraas said. Continue reading

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Logging complaints — Fishing guides suggest improvements for state licensing, log book requirements

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. House Bill 41 would reinstate licensing and log books requirements for all fishing guides in Alaska — including those on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers — as  seen here guiding for kings.  The previous program sunsetted in 2014.

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. House Bill 41 would reinstate licensing and log books requirements for all fishing guides in Alaska — including those on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers — as seen here guiding for kings. The previous program sunsetted in 2014.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Effectively, not much would change with the passage of House Bill 41, which would re-establish the fishing guide registration and logbook program in Alaska that sunsetted in 2014. And the biggest change — increasing the fee structure $50 to $100 for guides and guide businesses — didn’t get much response at a public meeting in Soldotna on Nov. 17, held by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get feedback on the bill.

But guides did have comments to make on how the program works — or doesn’t, or could, at least, work better.

“There’s a degree of anxiety out there among guides that it’s going to get misused and they’ll end up becoming criminals because they didn’t do something quite right,” said Joe Connors, owner of Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp in Sterling. “Conditions — it’s rainy, it’s crappy, the wind’s blowing, somebody’s got a crying baby — whatever. The guide is trying to do his best and we want to make sure that you understand that.”

Andy Szczesny, owner of Alaska Fish and Float, who guides for resident species on the upper Kenai River, talked about pouring rain soaking the paper logbook sheets, and clients giving him fishing license information on a smartphone, where he can’t verify the information himself.

“It’s difficult at times. And believe it or not, we can make a mistake, and we could get a ticket, any one of us in this room that’s a guide. If you say you can’t, you’re better than me after 31 years doing this,” he said.

Szczesny and other guides at the meeting said the logging requirements are too cumbersome and the potential for fines too onerous.

Mel Erickson, of Alaska Gamefisher, runs halibut charters in the saltwater as well as river guiding for salmon. He said that it can be difficult for guides to complete the forms how and when they’re supposed to.

“You’re out there in the rough water and you’ve got six people you’re dealing with and some of them are puking, and some of them are scared. And then you get in and you’re trying to deal with that and they just want off the boat right away and there might be some stuff you don’t have filled out yet. Eventually, you’re going to get it filled out but sometimes the timing of it just doesn’t happen when it’s supposed to be done,” Erickson said.

To complicate matters, logbook requirements are different for salt water versus freshwater guiding, and the consequences for error can vary, as well. Five different agencies have authority to check logbooks. Citations issued by an Alaska agency — like Fish and Game or Alaska State Troopers Division of Wildlife — would incur fines according to the state bail schedule. Some federal agents are commissioned to write citations on behalf of the state of Alaska. But if others, like NOAA, issue a citation, it could go through federal court in Anchorage.

And if a citation is given in the Kenai River Special Management Area, the guide could be on the hook for further consequences from the state Parks department, including losing out on wages from a three-day suspension, Szczesny said. As a result, Szczesny said, some guides might throw away their logbook entry sheets and receipts if they think they could get a citation, and Fish and Game would lose out on that information.

“So you get a ticket, deal with it, then state Parks issues a three-day suspension deal. It’s like a double jeopardy thing, like a $3,000 fine plus your fee. As a guide, I do not want to get a ticket with dealing with this crap,” Szczesny said. “… If a guy thinks there’s a chance he might get a ticket, all he has to do is pull out those white copies and throw them away. And you have to realize that’s happened, a lot, because they’re late. That shouldn’t be a thing that you want happening if you want the information to be good,” he said  Continue reading

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Holiday tradition cracks the mold —  ‘Nutcracker’ charms in 28th year

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

From putting up decorations to making festive foods, there are numerous ways people celebrate the holiday season. On the Kenai Peninsula, taking in the Homer Nutcracker Ballet has become an annual tradition for many residents over the past 27 years.

“The production has been going on since 1987 when my mom, Jill Berryman, had the idea,” said Breezy Berryman, who, along with Jennifer Norton, will be the co-artistic directors for this year’s 28th annual performance, as they have the past five seasons.

Jill Berryman, along with Joy Stewart, Marianne Markelz and Ken Castner, built the show up over 22 years from a little production with a few sets and costumes into a giant yearly tradition.

Breezy remembers those times, too, since she was often in the production.
“I was in the very first one as Clara and every year until I graduated, and then I even came back many different times to dance and help my mom choreograph different roles,” she said.

Since taking over the production, Breezy and Norton have tried to bring their own twist, including, at times, the use of lasers and neon lights, but have often favored the original Russian storyline.

“When Breezy and I took over, we introduced E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale back into the show. The original ballet is based on that story, but focuses more on Clara, and a kind of dream sequence in which she sees wonderful dances from around the world. We decided to focus more on the Tale of the Hard Nut, which is how the Nutcracker actually becomes a Nutcracker. We got to introduce a lot of fun new characters that way,” Norton said.

This year, they decided to return to the more traditional ballet story, although still with some deviations to make it creatively their own.

This year’s production will also feature one of the largest casts so far.

“We had 103 kids audition and we have the biggest cast ever at 85. It is very challenging to get all those people coordinated, but perhaps more challenging to turn them down at auditions,” Norton said.

Many of the kids are younger this year, too, mostly 13- and 14-year-olds, but Breezy said they have practiced hard to meet the expectation of performing to the best of their abilities.

“This year the cast is pretty young because a lot of our high school students graduated. Some of the choreography is quite challenging, but I’m really pleased with how much they are working hard to step up to the challenges,” she said.

Norton said it helps to try and pair each teen with a role that best suits them, based on their talents and abilities.

“The most complex part of this production for me is trying to give all the kids a part that they will love. There are often several hard-working dancers competing for the same roles and we try to make sure that even if they don’t get the exact role they imagined, we are giving them something challenging and rewarding which best highlights their abilities,” Norton said. Continue reading

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Plugged In: Bookmark the best to better your photography

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Our holiday gift suggestions in 2015 focus on truly useful books that take your photography to a higher plane, relatively inexpensive items that help you make better photos with your existing gear, and cameras and lenses that provide excellent capabilities while costing less than $600.

This week, we’ll start with serious books about serious photography.

Improving your knowledge and technique does more to enhance the quality of your photographs than buying an expensive, prograde camera or lens. No amount of top-tier equipment can compensate for poor composition or cliched subjects. So, we’ll make our first shopping stop in the book department.

There’s real benefit in broadening one’s view by seeing representative examples of acclaimed photos by other photographers, and not just American photographers.  Continue reading

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Budgeting for quality — U of Alaska tries to trim costs without losing students

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Redoubt Reporter file photo. KPC’s Career and Technical Education Center’s simulator lab at the Kenai River Campus. The equipment is patterned after what students will encounter working in the oil and gas fields. KPC is recognized within the university system for its career readiness programs and community support for its JumpStart dual-credit high school program.

Redoubt Reporter file photo. KPC’s Career and Technical Education Center’s simulator lab at the Kenai River Campus. The equipment is patterned after what students will encounter working in the oil and gas fields. KPC is recognized within the university system for its career readiness programs and community support for its JumpStart dual-credit high school program.

Of the many forms of budget wrangling going on in Alaska these days, the University of Alaska’s challenge is a particularly difficult one — to handle an as-yet unknown deficit number in such a way that doesn’t put itself further in the hole by driving away one of its main sources of revenue — students.

“There’s a very strong commitment to quality, to access and to affordability,” said University President Jim Johnsen during a visit to the central Kenai Peninsula last week. “Those are the three criteria that we are focused on as we evaluate what we do and how we do it, academically and administratively.”

The University Board of Regents recently approved an operating budget for next fiscal year that includes about $378 million in state funding, up 7.6 percent more than last year. That’s including a 5 percent tuition hike approved in February and another 5 percent approved in November. Johnsen said it’s a lean budget that covers the university’s fixed costs, and he’s outspoken about the importance of fulfilling the university’s mission to offer higher education throughout Alaska.

“And it really, I think, has to do with meeting the state’s need for work force, contributing to economic development and diversification in our state, for producing an informed citizenry … and also in solving the state’s problems,” he said.

There are some options for generating more revenue. The University of Fairbanks is a world leader in Arctic research, for example, and there are opportunities for commercializing research as well as drawing more research funding.

Johnsen also advocates for expanding ties with the business community, both in terms of donations — especially with a higher education tax credit in Alaska that rewards businesses for donations to the university — and in terms of lobbying support.

“When we go to Juneau, they know why we’re there, but when, name the company, if they go and speak on behalf of the university, that’s invaluable for us,” he said.

Alumni should expect to hear more pleas for financial support, and a fundraising campaign is in the works.

At the same time, the university is preparing four budget scenarios to meet a range of potential cuts, from $15 million to $58 million.

“We expect budget cuts, and so pressure will definitely be on the university, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to consolidate programs? What programs are you going to eliminate? What programs are you going to reduce? How are you going to rationalize your administration and bring those administrative costs down?’” he said.

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Kenai Peninsula College attempts to cut budget, not character

Redoubt Reporter file photo. Kenai Peninsula College’s residence hall on the Kenai River Campus opened in 2013. Funding for another large project like this likely won’t be on the horizon anytime soon as the university system and KPC face budget deficits.

Redoubt Reporter file photo. Kenai Peninsula College’s residence hall on the Kenai River Campus opened in 2013. Funding for another large project like this likely won’t be on the horizon anytime soon as the university system and KPC face budget deficits.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Peninsula College got high marks last week during a visit from the University of Alaska’s newly appointed present, Dr. Jim Johnsen.

“KPC provides a really important role for the university system. It plays a really, really important function in providing access to high-quality and, I would say, cost-effective higher education for the people here,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen specifically praised the school for being a pathway to jobs, for its e-learning capabilities and the school’s JumpStart program, allowing high school students to take college classes at a reduced cost, thanks to funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

“The investment this community is making in the future opportunities for its kids is impressive. And that’s something to be really proud of here,” Johnsen said.

As with all the university’s community campuses, KPC isn’t just an institution for learning. Its function is multifaceted.

“We play an important role, not just an educational role in those communities, but a cultural role, a community center-type role, we’re often the library of the community, we’re often the gathering place of the community. So we’ll continue to play those important roles,” Johnsen said.

As the University of Alaska faces a difficult budget with a deficit of anywhere from $15 million to $57 million, depending on the depth of the funding cuts from the governor and Legislature, Johnsen assures that the community campuses won’t be asked to bear a disproportionate amount of the cost-cutting burden.

“They’re just critical, and to do something like — as has been suggested to me, ‘To just shut down the community campuses.’ It’s a nonstarter in my book,” he said.

The community campuses could play a big part in getting the university back on firmer financial footing. Enrollment is down about 4.5 percent across the university system. That’s largely because Alaska high school enrollments are down, which narrows a big pipeline of new university students. As KPC Director Gary Turner points out, it’s also from competition from other universities.

“It’s the University of Phoenix, it’s Southern New Hampshire, my gosh. There’s 12, 13, 15 universities operating in our state that are not the University of Alaska. That’s a big deal. We’re losing market share,” Turner said.

E-learning is a way to draw new students within Alaska, and beyond.

“The Board of Regents has created four different task forces, one being about e-learning and how do we make it more robust, how do we serve our students? Do we want to recruit more out of state? Do we want to recruit more internationally?” Turner said.

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Eclectic, electric — Musician brings diverse style to Kenai concert

Photo courtesy of Radoslav Lorković. Radoslav Lorković will perform in Kenai on Saturday night.

Photo courtesy of Radoslav Lorković. Radoslav Lorković will perform in Kenai on Saturday night.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

If there’s anything a Croatian-born, classically trained pianist-turned-U.S. folk, rock, country, blues, jazz singer/songwriter and Zydeco accordion aficionado demonstrates, it’s that categories don’t mean a hill of New Orleans red beans. Good music is good music, no matter what classification it may or may not fit into.

“I cover quite a bit of ground. A lot of it is rooted in kind of New Orleans-piano styles. Some of my big heroes are Professor Longhair and a great pianist named James Booker, but I’m also a singer/songwriter and there my influences range from, of course, Bob Dylan, Jackson Brown, people like that. So I will be doing a few original ballads, some up-tempo New Orleans piano style with a Second Line sort of approach to it, and some straight-up boogie woogie and blues, as well,” said Radoslav Lorković, who will perform at the Flats Bistro on Kalifornsky Beach Road on Saturday night. “And then, just when you think you’re safe, an accordion will come out and I’ll be playing some Zydeco.”

Lorković was born in Croatia into a deeply musical, though stylistically divided environment. His maternal grandmother sang him Croatian, Slovenian and Czech folk songs since birth. As family lore goes, he could sing back in pitch by age 1, and by age 3 was performing floor shows for the family. The soundtrack at home was classical music, since his paternal grandmother was an internationally renown classical pianist. Lorković started studying piano, as well. The family moved to the United States when he was 6. By the time he was 14, living in Iowa, he was progressing toward a likely career as a classical musician.

Until, that is, he was led astray by the siren songs of a green transistor radio playing Top 40 music, and a lesson in how to play to blues music.

“I was just plodding along, playing my Bach and Mozart, being a good boy,” he said. “And then it was my sophomore year in high school, 1973. This gentleman showed me a blues scale and a base configuration to go with it. First he played it for me and I thought, ‘Oh my God, where do I buy the music for this?’ He said, ‘You don’t.’ And he showed me the scale and that blew my world wide open. You couldn’t keep me off the piano. I was just glued to the piano ever since — and still am, happily.”

From there Lorković became omnivorous of Americana music, tasting wide samplings of styles, starting with rock ‘n’ roll and tracing back from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie. He emulated the styles of boogie-woogie greats Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Freddie Slack, and the blues of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins. His palate came to include the spice of New Orleans, with Professor Longhair and James Booker, and branched into Tex-Mex and Zydeco-style accordion, as well.

His sets still include representations of his favorites, but along the way he developed a style and music all his own, as well. But it’s not just a blues song, followed by a jazz piece, then a folk ballad. It’s a little bit of all of them, all the time.

“They all show up. The jazz shows up in my blues. The blues shows up in my jazz, which is critical to jazz,” Lorković said.

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