When the WAYK team was last in Tanana, in late October 2014, the Yukon River was just about to freeze solid. During our return trip this spring, in mid-April, the entire village was waiting for the ice to break up. Both life and language revolve around the river in Tanana!
During our fall visit, the team ran a five-day introductory workshop for the village’s core language team and local speakers. Our return visit this spring was designed to move beyond a basic introductory workshop, and focus on how to work as a small group, meeting with speakers, finding and practicing the language you want, sharing that language with other local learners, and making those conversations into lessons that can be shared. In addition to the three Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabaskan) speakers who currently live in Tanana year-round, the village invited four other fluent speakers, two from nearby Hughes, and two others who used to live in Tanana but who now live in the Fairbanks area, to participate for the week.
During our visits with elders we were able to develop some simple lessons leading up to a basic introduction, and we also had a chance to share some of the materials that we developed around the coffee conversations with the Denaakk’e learners in Fairbanks in the previous weeks. However, possibly the most satisfying outcome of the week was the time that the speakers got to spend with one another, remembering stories, songs, and words in Denaakk’e. A few speakers had earlier expressed apprehension about being able to help, since they no longer have the chance to speak the language with any great frequency. One was troubled that he couldn’t remember the word for “moon.” But with the help of the reinforcements from the region, even words that initially escaped the whole group were remembered within a matter of minutes. As much as the learners were eager to spend the whole week hunting for language and recording stories and teachings, it was equally important to give the speakers time to reconnect and reminisce.
Our thanks to Shannon Erhart and the Tanana Tribal Council for organizing and hosting an event where speakers had a chance to visit with one another, and learners had a chance to refresh and expand their language hunting skills. Extra thanks to all of the fluent speakers, especially those who hosted visits, welcomed us into their kitchens, and served up delicious moose and goose to sustain the language sessions.
Be sure to check out our events page to see where WAYK is traveling next!