Value of Digitizing Last Words to Preserve Culture for the Future

How a Language can be brought back to life by digital Records

Jessica Charlie – Communications Coordinator

The Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) Education Department was recently awarded a $300,000 a year Ch’oodoohk’ii grant from the Administration for Native Americans.

The project—which will run for three years under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—aims to create metadata or data that provides information about other data, for all current Alaska Native language recordings to help understand and catalog them. It will also digitize the recordings and documents, making them searchable and available for tribal members in the villages to access over the internet. 

Currently, there are only two languages in Alaska that are fully digitized:  Menhti Kenaga, sometimes called Lower Tanana dialect, and Dinju Zhuh Kʼyuu, the dialect for the Gwich’in. Edward Alexander, the former Education Manager at TCC, says the project will ensure any knowledge gaps are identified and filled. Words not currently documented might include things like minerals, names of animals, plant usage, astronomy, cultural information, directions, political speech, and place names. Alexander says, “It’s about connecting people, and it’s about listening. Which is why the grant is called Ch’oodoohk’ii—it means ‘you listen,’ the elder is going to do the talking now. It’s about creating that opportunity for listening.”

Today, 9.2 percent of living indigenous languages around the world have fewer than ten speakers per language—and languages in Alaska are not an exception. At least three generations of indigenous children in the early territory, now known as Alaska, were put through cultural and language suppression. In 1888, Sheldon Jackson, the earliest commissioner of education, established a policy prohibiting the use of the native tongue. This prohibition included learning Alaska Native languages in school, and lasted until 1972. 

Consequently, as a result of this policy, nearly all the indigenous languages spoken in Alaska fell into a natural decline. The Eyak People who once lived near Prince William Sound spoke “daXunhyuuga’ which translates to “The people living to your left as you face the ocean.” The Eyak language was left on the brink of extinction when their last full-blooded, Native-born speaker, Chief Marie Smith Jones, passed away in 2008. 

In Smith Jones later years of life, she assisted Dr. Michael Krauss, the founder of the Alaska Native Language Center. Together, they worked on revitalization efforts to help breathe life back into the Eyak language. Dr. Krauss decided the best way to help preserve what remained of the Eyak language was to create a dictionary. This meant creating an Eyak orthography—or the conventional spelling system of a language. This created a written base to help build up the conservation efforts to save the dying dialect. During their work together, Krauss compiled more than 6,000 terms in written form. 

While Smith Jones assisted Dr. Krauss, one of her last premonitions was that a person from afar would come and save the Eyak language. Strangely, since Krauss’ death in 2019, Guillaume Leduey, a French linguist, has continued this preservation work with the Eyak people. Leduey was only 13 years old at the time when he first took interest in the endangered dialect. He requested any Eyak text, audio materials and DVDs and studied them, and became fluent in the language. Today, he is only one out of two people that is fluent in the language.

Leduey has helped create an online dictionary for anyone who wants to reference and learn the language. It now has over 600 words in written and audio form. The Eyak Culture Camp also meets every year, attracting interested linguists and archaeologists across the globe. Last year Leduey led the camp, focusing on positive and fun ways to learn, like variations of different games like ‘Simon Says’ and ‘Charades’. 

Using the Eyak language as an example how language revitalization efforts can work, the Ch’oodoohk’ii grant may be an effective way to preserve languages. Alexander says, “The idea is to connect the language to learners wherever the learner is at, and also to provide resources for students who are interested in studying their language.” 

The next steps for TCC are to hire a Ch’oodoohk’ii project coordinator who will oversee the digitization process, and will be involved with hiring elders, and review any language collections to catalog and research them.

For more information contact:

Stephanie Hinz
907-452-8251 ext. 3447