In our Storyteller profile series, we highlight the dreams, journeys and achievements of our students, alumni and supporters. Profiles are available to read, watch and listen. In this Storyteller language profile, our language revitalization program director, Allan Hayton, speaks with Denaakk’e language learner, Teisha Simmons.
ALLAN HAYTON: Drin gweezhree shalak, shijyaa naii. Nakhwaa dhiidii geenjit gwiintł’oo shoo ihłii. Juk drin Teisha Simmons vats’a’ geeriheekhyaa. Sheechii diihaa heedyaa, ts’a’ jidii diginjik k’yaa gwagwaa’ee diihaa gwahaandak. Mahsi’ choo nakhwaihjyaa nihthan. Good day my relatives and friends. I am happy to be with you. Today we will be speaking to Teisha Simmons. I am elated she is here with us, and she will be telling us about her studies. I’d like to say thank you very much to all of you.
Welcome everyone, we’re here today with Teisha Simmons and she’s a Denaakk’e language learner, and today we will hear from her about her language journey, her learning process, things that have helped her along the way and why it’s important to learn language. So welcome, Teisha, it’s very good to see you.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Ana baasee’ for having me, Allan. I’m excited to be here and talk about one of my favorite subjects.
ALLAN HAYTON: Great. Would you like to share an introduction in Denaakk’e with us?
TEISHA SIMMONS: Teisha Simmons se’ooze’. Notaalee Denh yeł Meneelghadze T’oh hʉt’aan eslaanh. Fairbanks lesdo. Setsey Sidney Huntington, Setsoo Angela Huntington yeł Jenny Huntington gheelaa’ee. Eenaa’ Marie Simmons, eetaa’ James Waldo gheelaa’ee. So what I said is: My name is Teisha Simmons. My family comes from the communities of Galena and Huslia and Koyukuk. And my mother is Marie Simmons, my father is the late James Waldo, and my grandparents are Sydney and Angela Huntington and the late Jenny Huntington of Galena and Koyukuk. I live in Fairbanks.
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome, beautiful, I love that. So you’ve been learning Denaakk’e … when did you start?
TEISHA SIMMONS: Just growing up around Elders always hearing it. I have this memory of living next door to the late Madeline Solomon, she was an Elder in Galena, and my mom and her would always send me back and forth borrowing things, you know, butter or sugar or whatever. And I remember she would always say to me when I’d go to her house, “Ana baasee’.” And I went home and I said, “Mom, I really want to say ‘you’re welcome’ to Grandma Madeline in Athabaskan, how do I say it?” And so I always remember wanting to learn as a kid, too, and hearing Elders speak.
In the Western sense of learning, of like taking it upon myself to say, ‘I really want to learn my language,’ that was really inspired by the late Lillian Garnett. She was teaching at Howard Luke Academy when I was in high school and she was teaching Gwich’in and at that point in my life, I didn’t even know the difference among the different languages. She had us write an entire speech in Gwich’in and I think my speech was like a page and a half long, and we had to get up in front of the entire school and say it and she just inspired us in such a way that I had no fear about even doing it. She just believed in us, that we could do it, and this was the way it was done, and it was really amazing. I just remember afterwards feeling like, ‘Wow, that felt really good.’ I would say that’s when I was really like, ‘Okay, I really would love to learn my language.’ And then my sister Tiffany, when she was at UAF, she took a language course, and I remember she had her workbook, and she would share with me. So there were just these things that happened over time that got me into wanting to learn the language. But I would say that probably the thing that, as an adult, and me really becoming empowered, was Sharon Hildebrand called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, we should try to make a singing group in Fairbanks.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m always game for whatever Sharon’s got going on.’ And so we just called up people and emailed and we got some Elders that said they’d work with us, and we would get together once a week and start learning. And we had these CDs and we would listen to the CDs and try to write it down the best we could phonetically, and then the Elders would come to town that we were working with, and they would sit down and be like, ‘Okay, here’s how you spell it’ or ‘Here’s how you say that word,’ and we just kind of did the best we could. Pretty soon we somehow turned into an official group and started getting invites to sing at different places. I think one year we actually sang at the Alaska Federation of Natives, it was really neat. Another moment I can remember that really highlights wanting to learn the language and what the words meant, was we were singing in front of a group of Elders that came to town and they were like, ‘Wow, you guys sang two whole songs.’ They were so impressed. And then they said, ‘Do you even know what you’re saying?’ And we were like, ‘Nope.’ We had no idea what we were saying in those songs, we just learned them phonetically. Like we learned the tune and we learned how to say the words, but we didn’t even know what we were saying in the songs. And they were like, ‘We’ve never seen people sing before, but not know what they were saying.’ And so that was another point where I was like, ‘Okay, I need to learn more and what I’m saying.’
And then opportunities would come up here and there. Susan Paskvan held a language camp out at Birch Lake one time so I went out there with my daughter, and then every opportunity that came, I just made myself available to go to it. And it’s just been an incredible journey and very, very good for my heart and my spirit. So that’s kind of my journey of where I’ve, how I got to where I am today with wanting to learn.
ALLAN HAYTON: Beautiful. We have that in common then because Lillian was one of my first teachers when I was just a child.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yeah, she is such a good teacher.
ALLAN HAYTON: I think I must have been in preschool and then all through my elementary and into junior high, high school, she was one of my big teachers. She taught me the reading and writing system and I really love all the things she shared with me. Miss her, it was a big loss when she passed this last fall.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: Also Sharon Hildebrand, I just always loved running across her, she’ll say things in Gwich’in to me too. She took Gwich’in at the university and she has a lot of good things to share as well. Those Elders, that was how I also first started learning, just hearing them in the village, and then slowly I started responding to them in the language and they just couldn’t be happier to hear a young person talking to them.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: So how would you describe your kind of approach to language learning, that process?
TEISHA SIMMONS: That’s such a good question because I’ve had to change the way I think about learning because I feel like sometimes in life, there’s always this like, ‘Okay, when I have time, I will do this,’ or ‘Someday I would like to learn my language,’ or ‘This is one of my goals,’ but it seems kind of far away. And everything has to be aligned perfectly time wise, resource wise, in order to just start working towards this goal, which is a big goal, Learning a language is a big goal. I mean, it’s no easy thing and it takes time and dedication. So I found myself just thinking about it in a way that was always putting it at a different time. So when this happens, then I’ll be ready, or when this happens, then I’ll be ready. Or when I have all the resources, I’ll be ready or when there’s a class, I’ll be ready or whatever it was. I’ve had a really big shift in the way I think about learning now and I’ve learned to approach all my goals in life like this now. I don’t want to wait until the time is right or when this happens, then I’ll be ready. So what I’ve committed myself to doing now is, every single day, instead of looking at the Doyon Languages Online program and say, ‘Okay, well, when I have time to sit down and do a full lesson, then I will learn.’ Instead what I do is I say, ‘Okay, I’m going to get my 15 minutes in today.’ And it doesn’t matter if I even finish a lesson, or I only get halfway through, or maybe I pull out my Athabascan dictionary and I look through it for 15 minutes, but I set a timer and I commit 15 minutes to doing it, because otherwise I’m always grasping or waiting for that time to be perfect for me to sit down and learn. What I found is that if I dedicate time every day to learning, it works out much better, and every day I’m making progress toward my goal of wanting to learn and actually learning, instead of saying, ‘Well, maybe this Saturday I’ll have a three-hour chunk of time where I can sit down and do a unit of the online languages lessons.’ And I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty interesting because I know I get in 15 minutes every single day, but almost always it turns into a longer period of time because I get in there and it’s just the act of opening up the languages online format, or a program, and just starting to work on it and it’ll be an hour later and I’ll be just like lost in it and enjoying it. It’s really gotten me past this idea of ‘I’m gonna work on it when this happens or when everything’s perfect.’ If I were to say, ‘I’m going to do an hour every day,’ then I might put it off because it’s a full hour. But if I say 15 minutes, I know, I set the timer, I’ve got 15 minutes. And if I only have 15 minutes that day, that’s fine. If it turns into an hour, because I have it, that’s great, too.
ALLAN HAYTON: Wow, that’s really good. Very good advice for anyone wanting to make progress on whatever goal they’re working on.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes. And especially with that online languages program at Doyon Foundation, I mean, it’s just right there. It doesn’t matter if I have 15 minutes at the drive-through, waiting in the coffee line, or if I have 15 minutes when I’m on a work break, or whatever it is, it’s just so easy to do. With it right there, I can just log in. And sometimes I don’t even get through a full lesson, which is fine, because I’ll do it again tomorrow and then I can make progress and really soak it up even more so. So it’s been a game changer for sure to rethink my goals in life altogether of ‘Okay, 15 minutes, I don’t have to do the whole thing right now.’
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s awesome. So that’s something that you say helped you learn. Are there other things that you found very helpful in your learning process?
TEISHA SIMMONS: I think another thing is what my idea of learning is, just knowing that spending time with the language is also learning. Sometimes I can be a bit of a perfectionist when I approach things and so sometimes I’m like, ‘Okay, I want to know what every word in that sentence means.’ And instead just familiarizing myself with it and going through the lessons and knowing like, ‘Okay, it’s building upon itself,’ that’s important. Sometimes the biggest things for me have just been in my approach. Sometimes we get in our own way, we’re our biggest obstacle. And so the other thing I would say is not being a perfectionist in how I say things, and that really came from some Elders we were working with, because they could see we were getting caught up in saying the word exactly right, or being afraid to say a word because maybe we couldn’t say it right at that time. And what Eliza Jones said to me was, ‘It doesn’t matter if you say it perfect, what matters is that you start saying it, because the more you say it, the better you’re going to get.’ She was like, ‘We would rather bring our language back than have you guys try to bring it back perfectly and never bring it back.’ And so I think that’s been another really big eye opener for me is like, ‘Okay, just keep going. Even if you get stuck on one part, even if you can’t pronounce that word right, just keep saying it and don’t feel bad if you can’t say it perfectly because it’s gonna get there eventually.’ So that was really great advice she gave me as well: Just keep going, don’t try to strive for perfection, instead make progress and keep learning. Otherwise, we kind of like hit a wall of, ‘I guess I’m just not good enough for this word,’ or ‘I’m not good enough to keep learning’ or ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing,’ or ‘I’m never going to get it.’ All these things we told ourselves in our heads about how things have to be when really, we just have to start doing and making time for it and practicing, because practice will eventually make perfect.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s very true. When we think of children, when they’re learning, they make a lot of mistakes, but we just try to support them. If they say, ‘I goed to the store,’ do you mean ‘I went to the store?’ They’ll continue saying ‘I goed to the store,’ and it’s fine. That’s how children learn, so we should give ourselves that same leeway and forgiveness if we make some mistakes it’s fine.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes.
ALLAN HAYTON: So forgiving yourself if you don’t say it perfectly. That’s really important because it takes time to learn things.
TEISHA SIMMONS: It definitely does take time. I would say from that time that Lillian had us write that speech, I was like a junior in high school, so that was like 25 years ago. I just imagine if I wouldn’t have gotten caught up in my head of this perfectionism and this idea that I have to have hours set aside in order to work on it, how much further I’d be along. If I just started today with, ‘Okay, I don’t really know what I’m doing but I’m just going to open up my program and start it,’ and giving it that time every day and approach of being graceful with myself, even when I make mistakes. I think I’d be a lot further along if I would have thought of those changes in my approach early on.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s beautiful, it’s something you can share with beginning learners who are just starting out.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes.
ALLAN HAYTON: That they can take the time and be kind with themselves. What would you say it means to you to keep learning? Like you mentioned starting some time ago that you’re continuing today, there must be a reason that keeps you going?
TEISHA SIMMONS: It really comes down, Allan, to two things. One is this is a language that our ancestors spoke for thousands of years, and I think we all carry some responsibility to keep it alive and thriving. Number two, it literally comes down to my own wellness. One thing I noticed and one thing Zach has told me, is my entire sense of well-being and my mood and everything, is so much better and I am just a happier person when I’m practicing my language. After I do a lesson on Doyon Languages Online, I am literally just on cloud nine, it feels so good to me. And what I would equate it to is, if we are in our community and we go to a potlatch, and we’re at the hall and the singing and drumming are just like so powerful. One of the memories I have is of being in Minto or the Nulato hall and the singing is so strong and the dancing is so strong, that you can kind of see the floor moving, it’s moving underneath people’s feet, it’s kind of wavering up and down. And that feeling I get when I’m in the hall and the music is like that, it is such an uplifting, beautiful, spiritual feeling. I get that same feeling when I practice our language. Like it literally is self-care for me to practice our language. We all know that our culture is tied to our well-being, that when we have a stronger sense of who we are culturally, and we’re active and practicing that, it leads to better well-being and a good sense of identity and just wellness overall. And it doesn’t matter what culture that is, the more we practice and be and understand our cultural identity, and language is part of that, the happier we are, the healthier we are. So I would just encourage people to test that for yourselves and get on the Doyon Languages Online page, or whatever your learning resources are, maybe it’s pulling out the dictionary and maybe it’s visiting with an Elder, maybe it’s listening to CDs, or I have some old workbooks from when the courses were offered at UAF. Whatever it is, just spend 15, 20 minutes on that and then see how you feel emotionally. It is so uplifting to me and it really is at the core of my wellness. What I found as an adult is that I am just a happier, happier person when I’m learning our languages and our songs, and so I know that’s something I have to do every day in order to just practice my own self-care, and to build resilience, and it just makes me a better person. I just feel better as a person. And so part of it is a responsibility to our ancestors and our Elders, but a very large part of it is also the happiness it brings me is amazing. It’s still actually a little baffling to me that learning my language can make me such a happy person.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s beautiful. I’ve had that experience myself, when we’ve had language gatherings. There’s always so much laughter and enjoyment. There’s good times together when we’re gathered and sharing the language.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes.
ALLAN HAYTON: It’s just a beautiful thing. And it is connected, there’s been actual research showing that these types of efforts make a difference in your overall well-being, wellness, health and it’s a beautiful connection to make. Language, culture. Also improve, support yourself and be healthy and well and in your own mental state or your emotional and physical state as well. It gives back when you give to the language, for sure.
TEISHA SIMMONS: I would actually challenge anybody watching this that if you have not tried language learning before, give it 15 minutes per day for a week, just a week, give us a week of your time and just see how you feel afterwards. Kind of just measure for yourself, do your own little experiment because it really is amazing. Zach will tell me sometimes, like, ‘Make sure you practice, make sure you’re listening to other stories.’ During the pandemic, I’ve been getting on the UAF archives or listening to Project Jukebox or the TCC legacy stories, and practicing language. And he always says, ‘I know you’re happiest when you’re practicing your language or listening to Elders,’ so he always has this inside joke with me, like, I’m his happiest partner when I’m making sure I’m taking care of that part of my heart and my spirit.
ALLAN HAYTON: Great. Before we started the call, we were going over something you would share with others to be able to use in their daily life and, speaking of learning language, we can learn something right now. We have something we can text to one another, you said.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yep. So one thing that I always encourage learners to do is just to focus on one word or one phrase, because otherwise if you try to learn something new every single day, it can be overwhelming and you don’t feel like you’re retaining something. So something I tell my close family members and friends is write down this phrase here, ‘Mendonh hoozoonh.’ What this means is ‘Good Morning.’ Anybody watching this right now, write that down, Allan’s got it on screen. Write it down, put it in your phone, put in your notes, wherever, put it on the wall, by your coffee pot, anywhere that you’re gonna see it every day, and then just text this to somebody every single morning. A couple friends and I have a group chat going on and every morning I get on and I just say ‘Mendonh hoozoonh, ladies,’ and they’ll write back, sometimes they’ll write it back to me, sometimes they just say good morning. But what it does is it gives me the opportunity to practicing saying ‘Good Morning’ every single day. And now it’s just a natural part of my language. When I’m in staff meetings now and people say good morning, I always say ‘Mendonh hoozoonh.’ When I’m on Zoom meetings, it just comes naturally. My phone starts pulling it up in predictions now, if I type in an M, it pulls up Mendonh, which I think is cool. My iPhone is learning write along with me. So I hope everyone will write that down and text somebody tomorrow morning saying good morning, and just give yourself a challenge to do that every day because before you know it it’s gonna come naturally and you’re just gonna start saying it.
ALLAN HAYTON: It’s a part of normalizing language and making it every day.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes.
ALLAN HAYTON: Using it as often as you can.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Yes. In the morning, I also start my emails with that. If I’m emailing somebody for work in the morning, I always write like ‘Mendonh hoozoonh, I’m just writing to let you know that duh, duh, duh,’ or whatever it is. Whether it’s work or personal, I always write good morning in my emails in our language now.
ALLAN HAYTON: Beautiful. I sure appreciate all your time today.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Thank you for doing this. This was so fun. I feel good even just talking about it.
ALLAN HAYTON: Anything else you’d like to share today?
TEISHA SIMMONS: I guess what I would just say is, if all you have is five minutes per day, give it five minutes per day. And the other thing that I would say is when you see opportunities come up, just join them and meet new people who are practicing language, too. Some of my closest friends now are people who are doing language learning as well and it’s just been really awesome to build those bonds.
ALLAN HAYTON: Beautiful. Well, thank you again and look forward to talking again soon and maybe joining your, do you have a regular evening class still or …?
TEISHA SIMMONS: We’re not doing evening classes right now but we are getting ready to start a possible lunch hour class on Wednesdays, I believe. What I would say is don’t get into your own mind and be your own biggest challenge. If you miss the first two, that’s okay, come to the third one. If you miss the first five, that’s okay, come to the sixth one. Whatever you’re telling yourself as to why you can’t join or participate or get online to do, just overcome that thought and start wherever you are.
ALLAN HAYTON: Great. Definitely keep us updated. So mahsi’ choo, thank you very much again and look forward to talking again soon.
TEISHA SIMMONS: Baasee’, Allan.
ALLAN HAYTON: Gwiinzii adak’ootii shalak, shijyaa naii. Take good care of yourselves my relatives and friends.
We are pleased to highlight the efforts of individuals committed to the revitalization of our Native languages. If you would like to nominate an individual for our Storyteller language profile series, please contact email@example.com or 907.459.2048.