Dena'ina is an endangered Athabascan language of Alaska, with fewer than 75 speakers remaining. There are four primary dialects: Upper Inlet (spoken in Eklutna, Tyonek, Susitna, and Knik); Outer Inlet (spoken on the Kenai Peninsula); Inland (spoken in Nondalton, Lime Village); and Illiamna (spoken in Pedro Bay, Old Illiamna, Lake Illiamna). Although linguists have recorded a great deal of the language in the past, little has been transcribed or organized into conceptual domains. With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Patricia Partnow of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and her team will conduct three years of research on linguistic domains in the context of rites of passage and coming of age in the Dena'ina villages of Nondalton and Lime Village. The end products of this project will include new audio and video contextualized field recordings. These recordings will be translated, digitized and indexed, then supplemented by existing language materials, and together will encompass twelve aspects of "coming of age" for Dena'ina men and women.

Without concentrated fieldwork of this sort, the language is destined for extinction before the middle of this century. The challenge facing Dena'ina learners (three of whom will conduct the bulk of this research) is having both the opportunities for learning the language in meaningful contexts and learning information that is relevant to the needs and interests of the learners themselves. This project will result in a corpus of contextualized language recordings that can be produced as web pages, video teaching tools, and podcasts for dissemination to anyone with an interest in the language. At the same time, young Dena'ina language learners will become proficient in conducting linguistic fieldwork and will improve their skills in translating and transcribing oral texts. Understanding the Dena'ina linguistic domains and the context in which the language is spoken and taught is fundamental to the success of this project.

Project Report

Final Report NSF Award 0756234 "Recording the Dena’ina Language" Prepared by: Alan Dick, Jonathon Ross, and James A. Fall Prepared on Behalf of: Alaska Native Heritage Center 8800 Heritage Center Drive Anchorage, Alaska 99504 November 5, 2011 This three-year project developed digitized Dena’ina language materials that describe basic life skills related to the transition to adulthood for young men and women. Dena’ina is an endangered Athabascan language of southcentral Alaska. Although many recordings of Dena’ina exist, little had been transcribed or organized into conceptual domains that are relevant to language learners. Collecting, transcribing, translating, and making available Dena’ina narratives about "coming of age" will aid in language preservation by organizing these narratives within a meaningful cultural context. The project’s products include new audio recordings that were transcribed, translated, and indexed according to various aspects of "coming of age." Much of this work was accomplished by Dena’ina language learners. Alan Dick organized the work of the interviewers, transcribers, and translators. James Fall and Jonathon Ross helped with project organization and planning. Helen Dick of Lime Village contributed countless hours, narrating from her personal knowledge, and helping others, prompting thoughts and ideas. Elders contributing Dena’ina texts included Aggie Hobson, Emma Alexie, Helen Dick, Mary Hobson, Nick Alexie, Walter Johnson, and Gladys Evanoff. Andrea Ivanoff, Elizabeth Solie, Wanda Reames, and Paula Bobby accomplished the transcriptions by learning the orthography and improving their Dena’ina language skills. Linguistic anthropologist Roy Mitchell provided training in using open-ended questions to elicit discussion of rites of passage and traditional enculturation. Linguist Joan Tenenbaum trained project staff in the Dena’ina sound system, transcription conventions, and basic structure of the Dena’ina verb during a week-long workshop. A CD entitled "Dena’ina Language Packet: Pronunciation [Guide] with Joan Tenenbaum" was produced by the Alaska Native Heritage Center in collaboration with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, with additional support from the Administration for Native Americans. Accompanying the CD is a short guide on "Dena’ina Transcription," also authored by Tenenbaum. Project staff developed templates for interviewing Dena’ina elders that include subject areas relevant to "coming of age." The templates approached "coming of age" from several directions, including life stories, the seasonal round of subsistence activities, and essential life skills. A goal was to conduct the interviews in natural settings to prompt the free flow of ideas and stories. Cultivating reflection on the past by viewing old pictures and talking about all aspects of the adolescence of the elders was essential. Once the setting was established, information flowed well. The project produced 96.1 hours of original Dena’ina material. Alan Dick prepared a synopsis of each recording to assist with selection of tapes for transcription and translation. Tenenbaum and Mitchell conducted a second workshop on developing skills for transcription of Dena’ina audio files. A key strategy assisted new transcribers: having fluent speakers repeat slowly and clearly for re-recording the words spoken during the original interviews. This procedure assisted transcribers in hearing and writing more accurately. In total, 31.2 hours of new interviews were transcribed. Linguist James Kari reviewed, edited, and commented upon several of the transcriptions, which contributed markedly to the skills of the new transcribers. Dr. Kari also transcribed and translated 24 recordings of 10 Dena’ina elders: Emma Alexie, Pete Bobby, Helen Dick, Alexie Evan, Antone Evan, Ruth Koktelash, Shem Pete, Alexandra Allowan, Katherine Nicolie, and Hamushga Zakhar. Topics are diverse, including hunting and fishing, material culture, and history. These recordings total 5.71 hours. The master file of audio files, paper copies and digital copies of transcriptions, and accompanying spreadsheet are stored at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. As part of a potential follow-up language learning grant, the project’s transcriptions should undergo additional review to contribute feedback to the transcribers. Such a project could evaluate the recordings and develop recommendations for publication. An anthropologist or graduate student could evaluate the "coming of age" information recorded in this project, leading to additional work with elders and more commentary on "coming of age" themes. The education of Alaska Natives is in crisis because the cultural component is weak or missing. In this project, "coming of age" domains were identified for Athabascan young people, and all audio files were sorted according to these domains. Awareness of these domains and what elders have taught will help young people reconnect to traditional values and discover the science and engineering concepts involved in their traditional activities. Finally, the traditional knowledge identified in this project should be applied for defining and meeting state educational standards for science and technology.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Keren Rice
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Alaska Native Heritage Center
United States
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