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Doyon Foundation Funds Language Revitalization Projects

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Of the 20 or so official Native languages in Alaska, nine Athabascan languages in the Doyon region are working on developing fluent speakers. The Doyon Foundation is accepting proposals for language development grants. 

A people’s language defines who they are, says Allan Hayton, the program director for the Doyon Foundation’s Language Revitalization program.

“There’s a lot to the language besides just verbs, nouns, adjectives. It’s identity, it’s connection, it’s culture. It really ties us all together to our ancestors, to our land, to our people.”

There are nine Athabascan languages spoken in the Doyon Region – the giant chunk of land between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range. Hayton says they were developed by peoples in close connection to the land. And some of those languages are critically endangered.

Doyon, Limited, the for-profit Alaska Native regional corporation, established the language program in 2012, as a response to shareholder requests. Doyon Foundation is the charitable non-profit and now manages the language revitalization program and a grant program. Last year, the Foundation awarded nine grants totaling $50,000 in Fairbanks and in Tetlin, Tanana, Nulato, Minto, Koyukuk and Grayling.

Hayton says the grantees have been doing important work.

“Northway has been building a language app. Nulato this last year has been converting some historical, archival education materials into their dialect.”

The 10 ancestral languages of the Doyon region are all severely to critically endangered, and will be lost within the span of a few generations if no action is taken. These languages are Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana), Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aand?eg’ (Tanacross), Hän, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Deg Xinag, Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga (Lower Tanana), Holikachuk, and Inupiaq.

The Foundation’s Language Revitalization efforts are working with groups in Canada, the lower-48 and UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center to learn the best approach to language learning and preservation.

The program has hosted language gatherings, workshops, and what linguists call “language nests,” immersion exercises that teach children to become fluent speakers. Last summer the program launched an on-line language lessons project.

Hayton grew up in Arctic Village, but learned greater facility with English than Gwich’in. As an adult, he has worked to keep fluency in Gwich’in. He has overseen the Doyon Foundation’s Language Revitalization program in Fairbanks for about five years. He says it takes dedication.

“Feels like a daily uphill battle. Still. I don’t think we’re at the point where we can say the languages have been revitalized and they are safe. But it’s… it’s a lifetime’s commitment.”

That’s where the Foundation’s grant program can help. Foundation Executive Director, Doris Miller says the language revitalization program is not intended to replace the current efforts of tribes or organizations across the state, but rather to collaborate with and bring them together.

“If we can support grass roots efforts out in the tribes, to revitalize languages, than that’s… We can drop the mic after that.”

A grant application packet with details and instructions, is available on the Doyon Foundation website, www.doyonfoundation.com. The application deadline is April 3rd.