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Elders Work to Save Kenai’s First Language

Elders of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe have been teaching students from around the state their language as a way of preserving it.
The tribe, in partnership with the Administration for Native Americans, Alaska Native Heritage Center and Cook Inlet Tribal Council, recently hosted the Dena’ina Language Institute to preserve, revitalize and perpetuate the Dena’ina language.  It is an Athabascan language with four dialects in the Cook Inlet area. It is believed that about 75 people can speak the language, out of a population of about 900 Dena’ina people.
Dana Verrengia, a tribal archivist, said elders came from nearby communities to share their language and knowledge with 15 students from around the state.
“It’s strictly elders talking and students listening,” said Sasha Lindgren, the Kenaitze tribe’s cultural director.
The institute took an immersion-style approach to teaching language developed by linguist Roy Mitchell of Anchorage, who is also taking part in the institute.
The immersion approach, instead of traditional reading and writing methods, is more in keeping with the history of Dena’ina as an oral language and is a natural way of learning, Verrengia said.
“When you were a child, you didn’t understand writing,” she said. “When you learned your first language you heard it, and then tried it. That’s how you learned.”
The Dena’ina Language Institute is part of ongoing efforts funded by the Administration for Native Americans. In the past four years, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s cultural and education staff and Dr. Alan Boraas, a Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor, have developed new curriculum materials for youth and adults, organized a tribal archive and developed a Web site for learning Dena’ina at home.
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