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A new generation’s race to preserve the language of their Dena’ina ancestors

Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 4:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Joel Isaak is an accomplished Indigenous artist, but when it comes to speaking the Dena’ina Athabascan language, he’s still working on it.

“When I was in the second grade, I wanted to do two things,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to make regalia and I wanted to learn how to speak Dena’ina.”

Now, as an adult, his goal has shifted. He’s not just learning the language, he’s part of a group trying to save it. The rise of of video conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped Isaak maintain contact with Helen Dick. A Dena’ina elder, Dick is a master of the language, but learning to communicate through Zoom has been a new skill for her.

“I was born in the woods. So, we don’t have any store,” Dick told Alaska’s News Source. “No nothing. No phone. No TV.”

Growing up in the Lime Village area of Southwest Alaska, she never used English. Her family only spoke Dena’ina, and now’s she’s part of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Dena’ina Language and Culture Revitalization Project.

“Our words are going away,” she said.

The language is considered severely endangered and Isaak has taken the lead in the effort to save it, which began almost five years ago. Today, the last generation of people whose speak Dena’ina as their primary language is almost gone.

“She had other people to talk with when we started the project and about half way into it, those people passed away,” Isaak said. “We’re at the stage where there’s like a 45-year gap between speakers.”

Along with Isaak, project manager Jennifer Williams and transcriptionist Andrea Ivanoff all fall into that gap.

“One of the ways that languages are lost is that you have the elders in Lime who used to speak it. I remember hearing the language a lot but then their kids were not taught it,” Williams explained. “I wasn’t taught it by my mom.”

Ivanoff is Dick’s granddaughter. Her job is making sure the language is written correctly. She explained the connection of culture to language.

“There’s so much to learn from them that we don’t know now days and our kids don’t know,” she said. “It’s a whole different life that they had to live that we need to learn more about.”

The project isn’t about just documenting the language. Isaak said they are creating stories that will demonstrate how the language is properly used.

“We have 50 stories that we have been working on over the last five years,” he said.

According to Isaak, some words can have a similar meaning — but Dena’ina demands the use of a specific term, depending on the situation.

“She’s hopping ... and she’s jumping, which is two different verbs,” he explained. “One’s hopping up and down. One’s hopping while travelling. One’s hopping just once. All those nuances, they’re different verbs.”

During the past year, these Zoom sessions have gone on almost daily. Isaak said that what has grown into a collection of 300 two-hour recordings is almost double what would have been recorded without the pandemic.

“You need the resources and you need the people and people using it to actually preserve something,” he said.

These bonus recording will go a long way in helping with the project. The plan is to eventually move into a new phase, which involves teaching the language, with the goal of creating new first language speakers. Isaak, Williams and Ivanoff could be responsible for another wave of people who’ll grow up always speaking Dena’ina, and with the power of Zoom, the odds just got better.

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