“The smile on an Elder’s face when they hear you speak is the best motivation!”

Rochelle Adams

Shoozhrì’ Rochelle Adams oozhįį. Gwichyaa Zhee ts’à’ Tseeduu diink’eedhat. Shiyehghan naįį Angela Peter-Mayo ts’à’ Cliff Adams goovoozhrì’. Shahan Gwichyaa Zhee gwats’an nilįį ts’à’ Shitì’ Tseeduu gwats’an nilįį. Shigii naįį Amaya, Koso Naazhrii ts’à’ Łeeyadaakhan goovoozhrì’. Shalak naįį łyâa gwiintł’oo gooveet’ihthan. Diinan ts’à’ diichuu haa diigwandaii nilii! Nihłaa narilzhii nan vak’aiirinyaa. Chihłak tr’inlii! Mahsì’ choo Shalak naįį! It’ee.

Rochelle Adams is the daughter of Angela Peter-Mayo of Fort Yukon and the late Cliff Adams, Jr. of Beaver. Her maternal grandparents are the late Susie Lord Peter of Nenana and Fort Yukon and Johnny Peter, Sr. of Fort Yukon. Rochelle’s paternal grandparents are Hanna “Babe” Adams and the late Clifford Adams, Sr.

Rochelle’s children are Amaya, Koso and Leeyadaakhan. Her heritage language is Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in).

A member of Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization committee, Rochelle Adams is committed to language learning and teaching, especially in ways that involve art to develop materials and content. She serves as a cultural adviser to Molly of Denali, the award-winning animated PBS television series and the first children’s programming of its kind to feature an Alaska Native character in the title role.

Rochelle studied design at the Institute of American Indian Arts and holds a bachelor’s degree with a focus on Native art and languages from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). She is pursuing a master’s degree in applied linguistics at UAF with an emphasis on Native language education.

Rochelle is the Indigenous engagement director for Native Peoples Action, an Anchorage-based advocacy group whose mission is to align the knowledge, values and ways of being of Alaska Native people with regulatory and governing policies that affect daily life. She lives in Anchorage. 

Doyon Foundation: Congratulations on your work with Molly of Denali, recently renewed for a second season. How did the program find you? What does a cultural adviser like you do to help Molly be successful?

Rochelle Adams: I was invited to join as a cultural bearer because of my work in language and culture in my region and also statewide. In the beginning, the cultural advisors really shaped the world of Molly. We envisioned who she was and who her family and community were. Now we advise on all levels of production to tell authentic Alaska stories. We do this out of love and to carry our traditional values from our communities.

It’s exciting that children are growing up in a world where Molly, a young Alaska Native person, shares her stories and adventures. It really brings Indigenous people to the forefront. We get to reset some of those stereotypes and misconceptions. It means so much to me to be a part of this!

DF: Language learning and teaching seem like a natural extension of your upbringing in a traditional Athabascan lifestyle, following the Yukon River seasons of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Who comes to mind as you think about your own language learning?

RA: My grandfathers on both sides of my family were the strongest language speakers and then my grandparents before them. My parents were from the generation that did not speak the language, but they understood a lot. I’m also grateful to my bilingual teachers, including Mary Fields, when I was in grade school.

Language connects me to my people, my community, my place and my ancestors. It’s the tie that connects our long line of culture to a place. It’s our core.

DF: Learning from Elders is one of the things that heritage language learners say they really treasure. Why do you think that is?

RA: Speaking with Elders as often as I can is among the best techniques to learn the language. There’s nothing like the smile and look on an Elder’s face when they hear you speak! It’s the best motivation.

Practice in as many ways as I can has really helped me learn. Reading our stories and listening to recordings have really helped me. Finding every resource and being on this journey of teaching and learning have been so fulfilling.

DF: Readers will know you from your statewide efforts on language advocacy as an aspect of inclusion. To name just a few, you’ve helped to mobilize the Alaska Native vote, promote safety and getting vaccinated during the pandemic, and joined Indigenous-language efforts to see that the Census reaches Alaska Native people. And, in 2019, you helped lead a panel at a language-learning weekend sponsored by Doyon Foundation. How do these efforts fit into your commitment to the Gwich’in language?

RA: I advocate for the language in as many spaces as possible. I enjoy facilitating language panels that do translation and messaging for education purposes. I teach where I can and always find ways to learn.

I really love working with my home region of the Yukon Flats and building Gwich’in content with our local Elders, speakers, educators and language learners. Some of my projects with Elders center on art and traditional activities so that I may learn them and document them to pass on cultural knowledge. I love sharing these resources and uplifting the language in any way I can!

DF: What ideas do you have to practice the language?

RA: The biggest challenge has been to practice with fluent speakers, to use the language. I overcome this by speaking with my children. It’s a great way to teach what I know. And when you teach, you learn – one reinforces the other. I also use social media to practice with fluent speakers and knowledge holders. I use books, videos and audio, and I search out speakers for face-to-face practice.

I want to learn the original place names in Alaska and I ask a lot of questions. I do land acknowledgments that honor the original people whose lands I’m on. I seek the knowledge of place.

DF: You’re guided by an awareness that you’re an Elder in training. How does your commitment to language learning, teaching and advocacy fit in?

RA: I plan to share as I learn. I plan to continue all the work I’m doing now to help grow, support and encourage the next generation of language learners and teachers.

Language is a very important part of who we are and it’s also vital to the health and wellness of our lands and waters. Embedded in our language is an understanding of the need to be good stewards of our homes and all that live alongside us, our fish, bird and animal relatives.

About Doyon Languages Online

Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation is developing introductory online lessons for Benhti Kokhut’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Deg Xinag, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aanděeg’ (Tanacross), Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Hän, Holikachuk and Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana).

The project officially launched in summer 2019 with the first four courses, now available for free to all interested learners.

Doyon Languages Online is funded by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), awarded in 2016, and an additional three-year grant from the Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP), awarded in 2017.

About the Language Champion Profile Series

As Doyon Foundation continues to grow our language revitalization efforts in the Doyon region, we believe it is important to recognize people who are committed to learning and perpetuating their ancestral language. We are pleased to share some of these “language champion” profiles with you.

If you know a language champion, please nominate him or her by contacting our language program director at haytona@doyon.com. Language champions may also complete our profile questionnaire here.

You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website, or sign up to access the free Doyon Languages Online courses here.