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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
Koyukon Language, Past and Present
By Mary Beth Smetzer

As a child in winter camp near the mouth of the Huslia River, Eliza Jones would fall asleep to the words of traditional Koyukon Athabaskan stories.

Night after night, while her mother sewed by the light of a coal oil lamp, Jones and her two brothers, snug in bed rolls atop mattresses stuffed with moose hair, would listen as their stepfather spun narratives of long ago when animals were people.

Eliza Jones
"The audience was expected to respond during pauses with 'hmmmm, hmmm,' " Jones explained over tea on an early December evening at her home in this Yukon River village.

"When he didn't hear the 'hmmms' anymore he stopped, and knows everybody is sleeping."

The next night a new tale would not begin until the young listeners could repeat the story heard the night before. If a line was missed in the retelling, an adult added it in at the appropriate place.

"You had to be an active listener," Jones said.

Those bedtime stories and the many more heard from her grandmother and others throughout her childhood growing up near Huslia are among Jones' earliest memories.

"Our Native beliefs are inside those stories," she said. "It is like gospel to us. It is very much a part of my belief in living in harmony with nature, with the land, trees, water, animal and bird spirits."

Following Jules Jette
Jones, a 63-year-old elder and Athabaskan scholar, is co-author with Jules Jette -- a man who died long before she was born -- of the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. The dictionary was recently published by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Jette, a French Canadian Jesuit priest, came to Alaska in 1898, two years after his ordination. While ministering and living among the Koyukon people along the middle and lower Yukon River, he documented much of their language and culture.

He died in 1927, and Jones was born 11 years later at Cutoff, a winter camp four miles above Huslia.

Their two lives merged with the dictionary, which is more like an encyclopedia. Each spent a quarter century chronicling traditional Koyukon culture, spiritual beliefs and knowledge of the natural world into a practical writing system and comprehensive source book.

Jette was a Roman Catholic priest. Jones was raised Episcopalian but converted to Catholicism when she married Benedict Jones in 1959. Jones grew up in a traditional lifestyle; Jette adopted one as a missionary priest.

Koyukon is Jones' native tongue. Jette was considered a fluent Koyukon speaker after four years in the country.

They both carried a little notebook to collect and record language notes.

From the very beginning of his ministry in Alaska, Jette concentrated on learning the language and culture of the people he served. In addition to registering births, baptisms and marriages, he recorded the nuances of everyday life, beliefs and stories. He left behind seven bound manuscripts.

Over the years of editing and adding to Jette's manuscripts, Jones developed a feeling of kinship with the priest.

"I felt like it was a privilege to work on his great work. At times I'd argue with him. 'Oh no, that is not the way it is.' "

Jones recalls a story told by her late great-uncle Chief Henry. On a trip to Nulato, Henry took notice of Jette because he was the first white person Henry ever met who could speak the Native language.

"I think he [Jette] was a person who fit in very well with the Native community," she said.

Jones counts the cultural information collected by Jette early in the century as his most important contribution.

"I wouldn't have been able to have done that. He wrote about stuff I didn't even know about," she said, pointing out detailed descriptions about making firewood flint, soap and a bow drill.

Jette's manuscripts were a jumping-off point for Jones, who "filled in the blanks" with her knowledge and that collected from Koyukon elders. Although Jette became a fluent speaker, there were dialectical differences he didn't hear or wasn't exposed to, said Jones, and a lot of phrases and verbs he didn't know.

Jones turned to her elders for direction as she continued the project.

"The more I worked with the elders, the more I learned and the more I needed to learn. There is so much that didn't get into the dictionary, especially specialty areas like the weather and anatomy of animals," she said.

Jones has lived through tremendous change, from the semi-nomadic lifestyle of her childhood to her newly modernized village home. Eliza and Benedict Jones' log home is one of five in the village, population 100, to recently get new plumbing.

"One of the things that is so devastating to the Native community is this huge, huge change in such a short, short time . . . I think that is why there are so many problems," she said.

Over the years, Jones has led cross-cultural workshops to educate and promote cultural understanding. She also teaches Koyukon in the village school.

"The work I do in preserving the culture and educating others about it, that's my way of trying to help the situation, and working on the dictionary is a big part of it," she said.

Growing Up in Huslia

As she talks, Jones snips away on an empty Pilot Bread box with an old pair of shears, turning it into a dog team with driver, passenger and three dogs harnessed together with bits of string. The cardboard creation was a favorite childhood camp toy, she explains, the harness string saved back then from the sewn ends of cloth flour sacks.

"I realize that our lifestyle as parents and grandparents has been interrupted by the influence of mainstream America and young people are not learning in the same way as people in my generation did. Our whole lives were shaped by our parents, our extended family and listening to our grandparents. There's no longer this nuclear family of people sitting down and listening to stories," she said.

Jones learned to read and write at the knee of her mother, Josie Peter Olin, who attended St. John's in the Wilderness Episcopal Mission at Allakaket as a child. Olin taught her children basic reading and writing skills as they traveled from camp to camp, following the fish and game.

The informal schooling gave her a head start when the territorial government set up a one-room schoolhouse in Huslia in the early 1950s. By then a young teenager, she finished grades 1 through 5 the first year, and grades 6 and 7 the next two years, working through the grade levels at her own pace.

Following their marriage in 1959, the Joneses settled in Koyukuk, where Eliza was a volunteer health aide and Benedict was village chief. When his summer employment with the state Department of Transportation turned into a permanent position in 1970, the family moved to Fairbanks.

Rekindled Interest

There, Eliza Jones rekindled her interest in the Koyukon language. She had become immersed in the subject in 1963 when Wycliffe Bible translators David and Kay Henry moved to Koyukuk with their three children. As a fluent Koyukon speaker, she worked as a volunteer consultant.

In 1973 Jones enrolled in a language class taught by one of the Henrys at the University of Alaska. One day Dr. Michael Krauss, director of the language center, was guest lecturer.

"He talked about how all Athabaskan languages are related," she said. "I was fascinated and thought, 'I want to work with this guy.' "

Jones began visiting Krauss in his campus office, where he introduced her to Jette's manuscripts. Before long she was on staff, writing, translating, teaching and developing course materials, including a Junior Dictionary for Central Koyukon Athabaskan, published in 1978.

Every summer when school was out, Jones would load up the family's homemade wooden riverboat with children and gear and travel more than 400 miles back to Koyukuk via the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Her husband stayed in Fairbanks to work.

Both retired in 1990 and moved back to Koyukuk. At UAF commencement ceremonies that spring, she received an honorary doctor of letters degree for her work at the Alaska Native Language Center, where she taught, developed teaching materials and secondary school curriculum, and presented papers at international conferences. In 2001, The Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary was awarded an Alaska Native Literary Arts Award.

She said she fears it won't be long before the Koyukon language is not spoken fluently. Although many young Native people understand what is being said if they hear someone speaking, they will respond in English, she said.

"Most people who speak Koyukon now can't read the language. It is not easy to read if they don't have training," she said.

Photo of Eliza Jones by Matt Hage, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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About the Author: This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and is reprinted with permission. Photo and text Copyright Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
 

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