If you are following us on social media, you have seen that during my travels I do as much as possible to document indigenous languages throughout the world. While in some places information is scarce, I have noticed that a large number of history, cultural, and even science museums in the US are making an effort to introduce visitors to these languages through special exhibits or woven throughout other exhibits.
This summer I was fortunate enough to travel to Fairbanks and Bettles, Alaska, for a bit of a secluded getaway. At the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in downtown Fairbanks, there is a wonderful exhibit on the languages of native Alaskans, and the preservation efforts. You may have seen the pictures posted to Instagram. From this exhibit, I learned that an indigenous language spoken in Fairbanks is Koyukon.
An Athabascan language also known as Denaakk’e (meaning people like us), Koyukon is a widespread language spoken along the same-named river in western interior Alaska. Today, there are about 300 speakers, although around 2500 identify as Denaakk’e. There are 3 dialects; all share 29 consonants and 4 long vowels, with 3 reduced variations.
What is most interesting about the language is despite its relatively small number of speakers, it is one of the best documented indigenous languages in the United States. Jules Jetté, a Jesuit missionary, spent the majority of his time from 1899 to 1927 living with the Koyukon people, and, during this time, he wrote extensively on the language, including vocabulary, grammar, and culture.
However, until 1970, these works were largely ignored, despite being in the archives of the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. During this time, Eliza Jones, a native Koyukon, discovered Jetté’s notes and used them in conjunction with tribal elders to form a comprehensive Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary, now published by the university.
Today, the Alaska Native Language Center offers classes on Koyukon, in addition to scholarly publications including the Dictionary. The ANLC on the whole is making efforts to preserve 20 of Alaska’s rich languages. With a holistic approach of teaching 3-5 year olds to become proficient in the language, in addition to providing materials for all learners and a focus on community engagement, the ANLC is showing that even with only a small number of speakers, a language can still be revitalized and even flourish.
Fairbanks Native Association’s Indigenous Language Project: https://www.fairbanksnative.org/our-services/education/head-start/indigenous-language-project/
Omiglot’s resource on writing Koyukon