By Jenny Neyman
Shizhi Besi qilan. Shugu shqiya qilanda Kahtnu. Shugu yeshdu da.
When translated, the students in a Dena’ina language class at Kenai Peninsula College weren’t saying much. Just practicing simple greetings in the Cook Inlet dialect of Dena’ina, the language spoken by the Athabascan Natives indigenous to the Kenai Peninsula region.
Literally: My name Besi it is. Thus it is my village Kenai it is. Thus it is where do you sit?
More familiarly in English: My name is Besi (Dena’ina for “owl.”) I live in Kenai. Where do you live?
But for a language that, not long ago, was in very real danger of dying out, speaking at all communicates much more than just, “Hi, where’re you from?”
Contorting the mouth to make sounds that don’t exist in English says, “I value this heritage.”
Coaxing the words from memory, rather than peeking at written notes, demonstrates integration with Dena’ina culture and traditions.
The mere fact that 15 students — many of whom are young adults — are taking the semesterlong language class at KPC communicates that the effort to not only rescue, but revitalize the language is gaining momentum.
“This is the language of this community,” said class instructor Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart. “It’s the validation of who you are. I think what’s important is a lot of our families heal from (the disconnection of) not being able to speak their language. I think so much has been lost, and the thought of having identity to a place where there was a language there — your family’s language — and to bring that to the surface, I think is really important to bring about healing for a community. For individuals that are of the language, I think it’s a sign of identity, that they can speak their language that couldn’t be spoken before. And just bringing that language to the forefront, it’s an important language for our community, for everybody.”
Almost gone, but not forgotten
According to anthropologists, Dena’ina has been one of the world’s most endangered languages. The greatest contributing factor to this decline was the policy of early territorial schools in Alaska to not let Native students speak in their own language. In Kenai, this policy was particularly severely enforced, even meting out corporal punishment upon students to discourage anything but English. Though in retrospect the policy reeked of, at best, cultural insensitivity and, at worse, racism, at the time it was portrayed as a way to acculturate children to Western society, ostensibly to make life easier for them.
It was crushingly effective. 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.
Helen Dick, a Dena’ina elder from Lime Village, was one of the few fluent speakers left. She learned the language — as well how to fish, hunt and all the other traditional knowledge of her culture — from her parents and grandparents, who didn’t want to send her off to school for fear she would forget her language. But she still experienced the pressure to renounce her culture.
As she told the KPC class during a visit last month, she fell ill as a child and was sent to a regional hospital where the staff spoke only English. She saw other kids being punished if they spoke Dena’ina.
“They put me up on the table, wait for me to say something. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t know how to speak English, it was only my words I could speak. If I say ‘please’ in my language they’d get mad at me, and I cry,” Dick said.
A nurse took pity and squirreled her away to the bathroom, where she taught the young Helen to say a few rudimentary words and phrases in English.
“I learn they don’t want me to speak my language. So then from there I got very real scared, and I don’t want to teach my kids. Because I don’t want to see my kids getting thrown off (a chair) or getting (put) in a corner because they tried to say something in my language,” she said.
Many Dena’ina of that generation felt the same way, and the language withered. Those who knew it but had been punished for speaking it were uncomfortable doing so, even just around their families. And there wasn’t any other avenue of education available for the youth, as there wasn’t even a written version of the language at the time. By the 1970s in Kenai, less than 10 speakers remained.
Linguist James Kari did extensive work on the language in the 1970s, helping codify a written version of Dena’ina. He and KPC anthropology professor Alan Boraas worked with the remaining fluent elders, especially Peter Kalifornsky, to preserve the language, much of it in the form of traditional stories which are recorded in “A Dena’ina Legacy — K’tl’egh’i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky,” published in 1991. Several audio recordings also were made of the elders speaking in their Native tongue. All of that knowledge has coalesced into curriculum for language classes, such as the one at KPC this semester.
“I think Peter Kalifornsky would be happy and feel so good that his people are learning what he’s left for them. We’re learning from the elders. We’re listening to recordings of them in class. They’re teaching us how to say the language. It’s like we’re bringing them back to life, too,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “And having Helen visit is so enriching for our class. We can get our recordings out and we’re so grateful for that, but to have an actual speaker here is wonderful.”
It took courage for the elders to not only speak their language again, but be willing to teach it, Shaginoff-Stuart said. Doing so brought up the old trauma. It required a profession of pride in the language to decide it’s important to preserve — despite the experience speakers had had of being shamed and punished for merely uttering their words.
“We can’t forget what happened. Helen is an example of that. It actually happened to her, but she’s here teaching us her language. Not saying, ‘Oh, I better not teach these guys, because they’re going to look down on me,’ or whatever. It’s not stopping her. So it shouldn’t stop us. We need to get over that generational trauma. We need to move forward and say, ‘Let’s figure out how to do it,’” Shaginoff-Stuart said.
To Dick, her language is a connection to her elders and to her own kids, grandkids and future decedents. Dena’ina are all connected, she said. Both spatially — as people in her generation and older traveled regularly between villages throughout Southcentral to stay in touch — and in time, with generations linked through culture and tradition, all of which is experienced, expressed and passed on through language.
“It’s like my dad would always say, ‘We’re all the same.’ Everybody speaks a little different but we all do the same languages. You’d hear the old folks talk (in Dena’ina). Those are good words. Those are nice words,” Dick said. “… It’s very nice if you can teach your grandkids so they know who they are. Because (without knowledge of their culture) they don’t know who they are. Right now the kids don’t know who their grandparents are, and we don’t know our parents.”
It’s a familiar story to Shaginoff-Stuart. Her family is from Chickaloon. She was raised in Kenai without much connection to her cultural roots, which are Ahtna as well as Russian.
“My great-grandpa was Russian. I have this name, Shaginoff, but I have no idea what it is, who he was, where he fits into our family. I don’t know,” she said.
She wasn’t taught her traditional language. It stopped with her grandmother, who also was stigmatized for speaking her Native tongue. Seeking out her Native language as an adult has helped connect her to her heritage, Shaginoff-Stuart said. And it does the same with Dena’ina.
“It started to bring back that connection we had to our ancestors and bringing them forward with the power that they had within them. I think that’s being validated as a young person, having that validation that I don’t think our people have had,” she said.
She actually learned Dena’ina first, before Ahtna. She remembers Kalifornsky coming to speak at the high school when she was growing up in Kenai, and being surprised to see a Native elder there.
“There was no Native culture around growing up as much as there is now. He made an impression. For me, it’s respect for this land that the Dena’ina language needs to be spoken,” she said.
Twenty-three years ago she took one of the early Dena’ina language classes offered at KPC. To this day she’s appreciative of how willing Kalifornsky and Boraas were to teach any who expressed an interest. She also remembers that she was the only Native person in the class.
“I thought I would meet others in the community, that’s why I was taking the class,” she said.
But that was just the beginning of the language revitalization. It’s come a long way. Today, Shaginoff-Stuart is teaching, and the class has a sizable, engaged attendance, peppered with many younger students, and the majority of participants are Native. Continued Dena’ina classes are on the KPC schedule, and other language classes are being planned, including Ahtna, Gwich’in and Yup’ik.
“A lot of our fluent speakers are 60 and above, and then there’s a huge gap in my generation that there isn’t any speakers, they’re language learners. And then our children, they know some words but none of them are growing up speaking it, and that’s how you bring a language back is through your children. Having our fluent speakers at that age is very scary to think about, and that’s why I think it’s real important for us to keep these language classes going. You never know if one of these younger people are going to take this forward and really learn,” Shaginoff-Stuart said.
“I really think it’s important that we continue this on,” she told her class. “So whatever you guys do with this after this class — you take it home, you use it, you share it, you advocate for it, it will come back. We all have it in us to do it.”
Practice is perfect
Learning Dena’ina, though, is easier said than done. Or in this case, no-so-easily said. The Athabascan language family is notoriously complex. The basic grammar and syntax of Dena’ina function differently than English. Vocalizing the words adds another level of difficulty, because the language involves sounds not made in English, and some sounds that aren’t really vocalized at all.
“There are some sounds that you don’t say but you use your mouth to make that sound,” Shaginoff-Stuart said.
Like vowel lowering. Vocalizing a “back velar” — such as a gg, q, q’, gh or h consonant — before or after an i, e or u vowel lowers the sound of the vowel, but the consonant is more of a vibration than a clearly articulated pronunciation itself.
Confused? Join the class. Except the students have the benefit of instruction and demonstration to figure it out. When Shaginoff-Stuart praises their efforts at even trying to produce the sounds — some holding their throats, some concentrating so hard they look like they might accidentally snap their pens — it’s genuine, even if it seems a little daunting at how much left there is to learn.
“Good job! And what we’re doing is just the little preschool words, right? Compared to the words that connect with the vowels and the verbs?” she said.
“I’m just so amazed by some of them, how fast they’re picking it up and how fast they’re able to retain this,” she said.
And then you get into regional dialects — Cook Inlet Dena’ina versus Upper Inlet Dena’ina versus Iliamna Dena’ina and so on, with differences between them in vocabulary, phrases or sounds. Languages also change over time, so the way something might be said in one of the old audio recordings might not be how it’s used now. That idea isn’t so different than English, though, with Canadians speaking different than the British, and in the U.S., Midwesterners sounding different than Southerners.
“How many dialects are there in English? Regional, but also agewise,” Dr. Boraas told the class when a student asked why there are different dialects of Dena’ina. “You probably speak different than me. Different words. I don’t say ‘dude.’ Or if I did you’d say, ‘What are you trying to do?’ So how do these form? They form ultimately by how we want to identify ourselves. We want to identify ourselves to a place and also to a group. But we also have multiple languages that we speak. I speak differently when I’m in front of a class than when I’m out mucking around. I use different words, I speak at a different pace. It’s complicated but, ultimately, it has to do with identity. That’s what we’re doing here — that’s what you’re doing here.”
That’s certainly the case for Sarah Wilhelms, who has worked at the new Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai. She, like many of her classmates, are connected with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe — members, board members, employees.
“I find that, going into the wellness center, I’m amazed every day when you say something in Dena’ina to someone and they look at you (with surprise, or a smile). I’ve had several encounters where I’ve had a conversation with somebody that led them to talk about their heritage,” Wilhelms said. “… You never know the kinds of connections. Today I went in and said (a greeting in Dena’ina) to someone, and she said, ‘What does that mean?’ So I told her and she started telling me where she was from and how she knew her language. She’s Yup’ik, she learned it as a young child but doesn’t speak it. So I said, ‘What’s hello in your language?’ She told me. I said, ‘Well, I’ll say hello to you in Dena’ina, and you say hello to me in Yup’ik.’ And jus the smile on people’s faces when they start learning language. It’s about connections, really, and people seem to really love it.”
Shaginoff-Stuart encourages the students to work on their skills whenever and wherever they can. Students at the tribe’s annual meeting recently had an opportunity to try out their new language skills. Many pronounce Dena’ina words whenever they see them — such as on all the room signs at the wellness center. They make the sometimes nerve-wracking effort to address other people in the language, even if the sounds don’t exactly roll off the tongue quite yet.
When learning Dena’ina, it takes a lot of practice to make perfect. But to Dick, Shaginoff-Stuart and others who want to hear the language grow again, any practice is perfect to their ears.
“I think it’s been going really well,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “I’m just really surprised at all the support and encouragement and also the interest that a lot of the students have had just in wanted to learn the language. … To see what they’re going to do with this, having the confidence they’re getting, I want to see what’s going to happen next year and the year after that. I’ve learned so much from them, it’s just amazing to see this growing in our community.”