“I was determined to keep my language”– Cora Demit
A fluent speaker in the Upper Tanana language Nee’aanèegn’, Cora S. Demit is an Elder from Northway who contributes recorded lessons for Doyon Foundation’s Doyon Languages Online project. Cora is the daughter of Andrew and Sarah Jimmie, both of whom have passed. Cora’s parents were from Northway. Her maternal grandparents are Bill and Eliza Northway; her grandfather was from Northway and her grandmother was from Tetlin Village.
Cora’s family includes daughters, Sherri Demit, Georgina Seekman, Sara Patrick; son, Garrett Demit; and daughter, Glenda Demit, who has passed. Cora has 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Births of two more great-grandchildren are expected by early 2022.
Cora Demit was one of five siblings growing up at Charlieskin fish camp near Northway when her mother decided at least one of her children should go to school. Cora, whose father died when she was only 3, remembers thinking that school sounded like an adventure. She was 11 years old, fluent in her language, the only one she’d ever spoken, the only one her mother and grandmother knew.
“When I went to school in Northway, I couldn’t speak English,” said Cora, who turned 75 in October. “I remember it vividly, just like turning back the clock.” She recalls thinking school would be just another new experience. “Wrong,” she said. The Northway school, one of dozens in Alaska run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), insisted on English and Cora tried her best while also refusing to give up the Upper Tanana language.
“Lo and behold, I was stubborn,” she said, smiling. “I was determined to keep my language. That’s how I communicated with the Elders.” She remembers sitting on the floor, one of a number of people gathered around an Elder who sat in a chair and told legends and stories by the hour. “There is so much more meaning in the Native languages – there’s not enough English to express what’s said in the languages,” Cora said. “We’d sit among the Elders and not say a peep.”
Memories of her early school years remain hurtful: “Stupid” and “dumb” were words she recalled hearing often, even though she didn’t know what they meant. Not speaking English brought frequent humiliations. She was made to put her head down on her desk and not move. The fingers of her hand were struck. She was yelled at, stuck in a corner and made to stand alone. Mistreatment extended from the classroom to the lunchroom where food was slopped on the plates of children holding out their tin trays.
International efforts to honor the struggle of Indigenous people exposed to compulsory assimilation in government-run schools have led to an annual day of recognition, observed in Alaska on September 30. Early school years for Cora were “a bad experience,” she said. “I had a really difficult time learning to speak and write English. It’s a difficult language.” School and its insistence on English were turning her into a shy girl who kept to herself rather than risk punishment for trying to talk with others.
“I became bitter, but that’s not who I was,” she said. From Northway, she went on to the Wrangell Institute, a BIA boarding school established in 1932; things didn’t improve much until summer freedoms came around. “When I returned home, I could speak to my mother and grandmother. I was in my glory again,” Cora said.
Determined to continue her education despite mistreatment, Cora transferred to Mount Edgecumbe High School, near Sitka, and graduated in 1965. She recalled a more benign atmosphere, where Alaska Native languages were spoken and she learned to find friends. “Being able to speak the language changed the way you thought about school and yourself,” Cora said. And at her grandmother’s urging, she learned to forgive. “To keep living, to heal myself, I had to forgive people who did me harm,” Cora said.
These days, she speaks regularly to her grandchildren in their language, immersing them in the everyday words of Nee’aanèegn’ just as she learned them. “I tell them in the language ‘the bus is coming’ and that means to hurry up!”
“I grew up when there was an attempt to take my language away from me,” Cora said, explaining her commitment to language revitalization and her work with Doyon Languages Online. “From my own experience, I know what it’s like to hold onto the language kicking and screaming. I know that if you can’t speak to the Elders, you lose the chance to learn from them.”
“Language is the backbone of our culture,” she said. “If we don’t have it, we are very lost.”
About Doyon Languages Online
Through the Doyon Language Online project, Doyon Foundation and our group of committed content creators, linguists and Elders are 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.
You may learn more about our language revitalization program on our website, or sign up to access the free Doyon Languages Online courses here.