Alaska: Web helping Kenaitze tribe to save Dena'ina language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Aug 30 13:18:55 UTC 2007

*Web helping tribe to save language
Site aims to keep Dena'ina culture from extinction *

Peninsula Clarion

For Alan Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College,
helping to revitalize a language that's nearly dead is not just an
interesting project, it's the right thing to do. "It's a very emotional
thing to see a language become extinct," he said. "It's the equivalent of a
species becoming extinct. What we lose is not just the words, but the
thought processes that are part of a language."

For more than two years, Boraas and his colleague Michael Christian have
taken pictures, navigated through HTML and digitized old audio recordings of
Native writer Peter Kalifornsky in order to present Dena'ina vocabulary,
grammar, stories and place names in an interactive Web site that went live
last month. "I'd sit in front of my computer and Michael was next door
sitting in front of his. I'd build a Web page there are several hundred Web
pages and add certain elements," Boraas said. "(Christian's) expertise is in
doing the sound work and perfecting the pages so they ran smoothly. I
couldn't do that so I'd give it to him and he'd edit and fix it.

"We've got a draft of it up and running now, we're just trying to get the
bugs worked out." In an e-mail, Boraas said some browsers may not support
his Web site, but the kinks should be worked out within the next couple of
weeks. The Web site is an ongoing project with more features being added to
it as time goes by. Visitors can access the Web site at "I hope people of all ages go to it and
gain insights into both the language and the culture," Boraas said.

This project is the latest in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's endeavor to
revitalize their Native language. Cultural Director Alexandra "Sasha"
Lindgren, a tribal elder with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said a three-year
grant from the Administration for Native Americans allowed the tribe to buy
Boraas out of his teaching contract with KPC, enabling him to devote more
time to the Web site. But the site is only one part of what the grant was
used for.

"We're training people to teach the Dena'ina language," said Lindgren, the
project director for the grant. "It's more than the Web site." The credit
for much of the Dena'ina revitalization goes to James Kari, who spent 30
years working on a dictionary that's on sale now, as well. Boraas said Kari
came to Alaska in the 1970s after studying Navajo and worked with Peter
Kalifornsky to develop his dictionary. "He began recording before
computers," Boraas said. "He would write the word as people said it, develop
the spelling system and just build up massive amounts of information."

Kari's dictionary took him to Nondalton and Tyonek, where he would seek out
Native speakers in order to expand it. "What's so remarkable about it is if
it wouldn't have been done over this 30-year period, it would never have
been done because the youngest speaker that we know of is 60 years old and
most are in their 70s or 80s," Boraas said. "This dictionary is a great
achievement. In a hundred years it will be considered the most important
book produced during this time period for this part of Alaska."

Finding people who actively speak the Dena'ina language is one of the most
difficult parts of revitalizing it. Boraas said a lot of people know the
language, but because of language extinction policies in place as recent as
the 1960s, some were severely punished for speaking it. "Children, if they
spoke the Native language in most parts of Alaska, including the Kenai
Peninsula, would have their mouths washed out with soap or be beaten,"
Boraas said. "Now those folks are elders."

To the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, language revitalization ties into their sense
of identity, Lindgren said. "Why is it important that we revitalize a Native
language? It defines who we are, and it defines the relationship to where we
are," she said. "Imagine how you would feel if the United States were to
sell Alaska, and that company or that country that bought the land mass
that's Alaska came in and said you may no longer speak English."

Lindgren said the grant money allowed them to initiate a Head Start program
centered on language revitalization. The Alaska Native Heritage Center also
has a middle school program centered on the Dena'ina language and the Alaska
Native Language Center is training teachers. "Alan's Web site falls into the
middle of that," she said. The majority of the tribe's 1,200 members live in
Anchorage, Soldotna and Kenai, but the Web site is an important tool for
members scattered across the country.

"The people who don't live here can access the language their grandmother
spoke," Lindgren said. "It's a wonderful opportunity, and we'll just wait to
see how far it goes."
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