Members of the Alaskan branch of a Yukon native language are helping their Canadian relatives preserve their language and culture in the Beaver Creek area.
Like a number of other Yukon native languages, Upper Tanana is international, with speakers on both sides of the Yukon-Alaska border.
In earlier years, the late Bessie John of Beaver Creek, a distinguished elder, was a tireless contributor to the work of language preservation as both a fluent speaker of Upper Tanana and a native language instructor in the school.
In fact, after her passing in 2000, the school at Beaver Creek was renamed Nelnah Bessie John School in her honour, incorporating her native name.
Now other members of the White River First Nation, including Bessie’s younger brother chief David Johnny and his wife Ruth Johnny, are carrying on the work of preserving the Upper Tanana language.
Ruth Johnny is a fluent speaker from Northway, Alaska, who began teaching her language in the school at Beaver Creek in November.
She has lived in the community since 1984 and speaks the Northway dialect of Upper Tanana, which differs in several ways from the local Scottie Creek dialect.
“The people in Northway had a huge hunting area,” explains Ruth, noting that her husband’s father, White River Johnny, lived at Scottie Creek in what later became part of Canada.
“But when the border came through, it cut off that Yukon piece and some families ended up on the Canadian side. So that’s how a part of the Upper Tanana language ended up in Canada.”
Recently Ruth, her husband, and her husband’s brother Patrick attended an Upper Tanana literacy session at the Yukon Native Language Centre, along with Ruth’s mother, elder Martha Sam from Northway.
“Even though it’s considered a small language in terms of speakers in the Yukon, there’s a really solid interest in keeping it going,” says John Ritter, the centre’s director.
“Bessie John was such a wonderful speaker and bearer of the Upper Tanana culture, and these people are now carrying on with the language work.”
The language is named after the upper reaches of the Tanana River, which is where the Scottie Creek area is found.
Ritter notes that it used to be a very remote area, “because the Upper Tanana was not always easily navigable during the era when supplies came in by boat, so that remoteness helped preserve the language and culture until the Alaska Highway came in in 1942.”
Upper Tanana has a special affinity with both the Hän and Gwich’in languages — the word for salmonberries is virtually identical in these three languages.
However, it has some phonetic features that aren’t found in other Yukon languages, even though it’s an Athabaskan language like its neighbours.
In Beaver Creek it also co-exists with Northern Tutchone, despite the smallness of the community.
The White River First Nation has some families who speak Upper Tanana and some who speak Northern Tutchone.
That’s presented a challenge for Ruth Johnny as a language teacher in the school.
With eight students from Grades 4 to 8, Ruth must deal with both these languages, including the two different dialects of Upper Tanana.
“I allow the students to use Northern Tutchone, but I make them identify it so they know which word belongs to which language,” she says.
“And I teach them how to say the word in my Northway dialect of Upper Tanana and in the Scottie Creek dialect.”
Despite the fact that Northern Tutchone and Upper Tanana are different languages (and not just dialects of the same language), speakers of the different languages could understand each other, says Ritter.
“When Bessie John was alive, she would speak Upper Tanana to Agnes Nieman and Agnes would reply in Northern Tutchone.
“As different as the language were, people intermarried in that area and the two languages co-existed.
“So they could each speak their own language and they could understand each other because there was this tradition of shared languages among people living out on the land.”
In fact, because the Scottie Creek dialect area bordered on both Southern and Northern Tutchone language areas, it now has a different way of forming questions than the Northway dialect, using the same suffix as Southern and Northern Tutchone.
“The Scottie Creek dialect uses an ‘a’ sound at the end of a verb to turn it into a question, while my own Northway dialect uses ‘la’ to make a sentence into a question,” says Ruth.
“I’d had a hard time with that. What is this ‘a’ at the end of sentences? Now I know it’s to make a question.”
That’s why literacy sessions like the recent one at the centre are so useful, she explains.
People from both sides of the border can share information about the language, including place names, as well as practise listening exercises and develop vocabulary.
“All through lunch they were comparing words between the two dialects and asking each other words and talking about language,” adds Ritter. “This is real language work at the grassroots level.”
Ruth’s mother was also able to help sort through some of the very specific names for birds.
“Having elder Martha Sam with us was wonderful,” says Ritter. “We pulled out the guidebooks and checked spellings and identifications.”
Sam, the daughter of the famous elder Walter Northway — for whom the Alaskan community was named — was also able to remember traditional native names for the area where she grew up.
“We looked at a photo of chief Walter’s camp from the air,” says Ritter. “And Martha said, ‘Oh, that’s where I grew up, and we used to go across with the raft and play on that island.’
“There’s a creek there that comes in from a big lake, and she gave us the native names of the lake and the creek and the campsite.
“It was all there. That was their home. It made the language that much more alive.”
Johnny enjoys her new role as teacher and is enrolled in the native language instructor certificate program at the language centre.
She also has a solid grounding in her language because she grew up in the traditional way with her grandmother, speaking Upper Tanana from birth.
She and her seven sisters are now all trying to increase their fluency in the language, with their mother “always in the background correcting us,” says Ruth.
“And when the eight of them get together, you go crazy!” adds Sam laughingly.
Ritter says that the literacy session was “two days of really intensive work,” adding that “from the time they came through the door, we were focused on the Upper Tanana language.”
The group now has some very clear, specific goals for future sessions, including place names, personal names, and other aspects of traditional culture that their young people want to learn.
They also want to turn an Upper Tanana glossary into a full-fledged dictionary, complete with sound files so that users can hear the correct pronunciations.
With her newfound understanding of the relationship between dialects, Ruth’s approach to her language teaching is reinforced.
“We’re trying to bring the Scottie Creek dialect back,” says Johnny. “By using the language in school, even if it’s my Northway dialect, it gives them a push to get their own version back.
“I constantly remind the students that they’re not learning the Northway dialect, the Northway people are just giving them a push to remember their own dialect.”
Now, notes Ruth, the students are beginning to use their language at home, too.
It sounds like a case of hands across the border — or in this case, voices — helping to ensure that Upper Tanana remains a vibrant part of the present.
Submitted by the Yukon Native Language centre