Tribe to hold virtual Dena’ina workshop for early language learners

Jolene Sutherland, left, and Dena’ina elder Helen Dick at a Kenai Peninsula College Dena’ina language class in 2014. Dick is one of the few Dena’ina language speakers around who learned the language as a child. (Photo by Jenny Neyman/Redoubt Reporter)

Learning any language can be intimidating, at the outset.

Will Norton, a Dena’ina community language teacher with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said sometimes getting started is the hardest part. That’s what he’s hoping to tackle at a virtual Dena’ina language workshop later this month.

“Although this course really is just the basics, what we’re trying to do is give people a platform to really start learning and to go as far as they want to,” he said.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe received a two-year Emergency Native Language grant from the American Rescue Plan Act to hold free Dena’ina language workshops for beginners.

The series is part of a mosaic of language revitalization work from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. The tribe recently launched a virtual Dena’ina Audio Dictionary and is continuing to offer language courses for adults, through Kenai Peninsula College, and language lessons for kids, at its new educational campus in Kenai.

“There’s kind of a gap, in terms of classes for adults who aren’t necessarily interested or able to take a college course for a full semester,” Norton said. “And that’s a pretty big group of people. So we’re trying to meet the gap with these classes.”

This is the second of three community language workshops through the federal grant. The first was in-person — but Norton said the community wanted a virtual workshop, too.

Norton and co-instructor Yvonne Flynn will brief attendees on Zoom on basic Dena’ina greetings, introductions and vocabulary.

“It’s not the sort of thing where you have to become fluent,” Norton said. “That takes a lot of work and a lot of time, and of course we encourage anyone who wants to to do it.”

But he said even learning a phrase here and there can be valuable — for Dena’ina people and others who live on Dena’ina land.

“It’s still important to know at least a little bit of the language of the place where you live,” he said.

The Dena’ina language workshop is Oct. 25 and 27, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The workshop is free and will be fully remote, over Zoom.

To register, email Norton at wnorton@kenaitze.org.

Norton said if the workshops are successful, they’ll consider some longer-term offerings, as well. He said they’re already planning workshops that will cover advanced grammar, as well as vocabulary related to the Native Youth Olympics, next spring.

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