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 Continue reading