In this Storyteller language profile, we speak with the instructor and students from the Native language class at Effie Kokrine Charter School in Fairbanks. The high school students are learning different Doyon region languages using Doyon Languages Online as well as other language-learning programs. They also spend time giving presentations on the languages, watching and discussing documentaries, and working on various projects. Currently, students are doing translation projects in which they make a variety of displays. For example, one student is making signs with room numbers, another is making a display of Inupiaq seasons and seasonal resources, and another is doing a partial translation of poetry he wrote. You can watch or listen to the full interview, or read a transcript, with minor edits for clarity.

ALLAN HAYTON: Good to see you, everyone. We’re here today at Effie Kokrine Charter School, where some of the students here in Michael Dean’s class are studying several languages within the Doyon Languages Online platform, as well as Rosetta Stone. We’re just going to share some short conversation about the class, about what they’re learning, and I’d just like to welcome everyone. Maybe quickly you could introduce yourselves, say your name and what grade you’re in.

MATTHEW READ: Matthew, I’m in 10th grade.

NAHSHON ATTLA: My name is Nahshon, and I’m in ninth, a freshman.

HOLLY ERICK: Holly, and I’m in tenth grade.

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: Sam and I’m in ninth grade.

NEKOYA WIEHL: I’m Nekoya Wiehl and I’m in ninth grade.

ALLAN HAYTON: So you all have been taking the class here this spring semester, some of you were in last semester’s class as well. You’ve been using Doyon Languages Online, and there’s currently five languages in there. So you’re able to choose one of the languages. Which languages are you studying in class?

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: I’m studying Inupiaq.

ALLAN HAYTON: Inupiaq? Through the Rosetta Stone, right?


NEKOYA WIEHL: I’m studying Denaakk’e.

MATTHEW READ: I’m studying Dinju Zhuh Kʼyuu, Gwichʼin.

NAHSHON ATTLA: I’m also studying Central Denaakk’e on the Doyon Languages Online program.


HOLLY ERICK: I’m studying Gwichʼin.

ALLAN HAYTON: That’s really awesome. What was the thing that made you want to learn, and choose one of these languages to study?

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: My family’s from Kotzebue, and I just wanted to be able to converse with my family easier and also pass this language on to my little siblings, Tommy and Calvin, hopefully.


MATTHEW READ: I’ve always really liked learning languages, and I always wanted to learn a language of the place I live in. Even though I’m not Native myself, I thought I should at least learn the language of the place I live in.

ALLAN HAYTON: That’s beautiful.

NAHSHON ATTLA: My family’s from Huslia, so it originally started with me wanting to learn a language. I’ve always wanted to learn my Native language and so I asked my grandma if she can teach me. She doesn’t know much herself, so that’s kind of unfortunate. And then I found out this class was available.


HOLLY ERICK: I’m wanting to learn this language so I can talk to my family and learn it because it’s part of my culture so I should know it.

NEKOYA WIEHL: My family is from Rampart, Tanana. I wanted to learn this language because it makes me sad that the language is dying and not a lot of people know it anymore. When I was younger, I wasn’t really interested in it, but now that I’m older and understand more, I decided to try and learn it and hopefully teach others.

ALLAN HAYTON: That’s great. Thank you. What are the things you’ve found challenging as you’ve been going through these courses together?

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: For me, mostly it was figuring out the different dialects, especially what dialect my village is in and finding a steady language resource that keeps that dialect.

ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, that could be challenging to find somebody or some resource within the languages. A lot of these languages don’t have textbooks or other resources to be able to learn them, or classrooms or teachers.

MATTHEW READ: What I found challenging was memorization with such long words, and some are really difficult to pronounce. That made memorization a little challenging sometimes.

NAHSHON ATTLA: One of the challenges for me was pronunciation. I’ve heard the language before from my great grandmas and grandpas and when I go down to Huslia, but I’d never actually tried to speak it before. So I knew some words before, but not the more challenging ones to pronounce. So I was having a hard time with that. And then because there’s nobody that I can really talk to about it.

ALLAN HAYTON: Well, maybe we can find some people to connect with.

HOLLY ERICK: The thing I have found that has been challenging is pronouncing words right and memorization.

ALLAN HAYTON: I heard that you have to hear and repeat a word like 300 times in order for it to sink into your memory. You do have to have a lot of repetition when you’re learning a language.

NEKOYA WIEHL: Some things I have trouble with is pronunciation, memorization, and not being able to talk to a person that can teach me.

ALLAN HAYTON: So why is it important to learn these languages or speak them or pass them on? Could you share a little bit about that?

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: I think it’s important to keep learning these languages because it keeps our culture alive, and by learning these languages, in a sense, you’re fighting back against the colonization of the past and also the colonization that continues today.

MATTHEW READ: I think it’s really important to keep these languages alive with so many dying out very quickly. The Native languages have so much culture intertwined with the language itself; when you lose a language, you lose such a vast amount of culture. So I think it’s really important to keep the languages alive and keep teaching it to the youth.

NAHSHON ATTLA: I strongly agree with what Sam and Matthew have to say about it because I know in my family, only my great grandma really knew the language enough to pass it down, but she wasn’t able to, unfortunately, because she passed a couple of years ago. She taught her kids a little, like my grandma, but not that much of it. And so I find it very important that I pick it up and pass it down because almost nobody in my family knows a lot about it.

HOLLY ERICK: The language is important because we’re losing speakers to keep the language going, and it is part of my culture and I want to keep it around. It’s in danger and we need the speakers.

ALLAN HAYTON: Samoan, it’s a South Pacific language, there’s 300,000 speakers and that’s almost the size of Anchorage, but it is an endangered language because children of that area aren’t learning the language as much as their parents or grandparents or previous generations did. So even though there’s a lot of speakers, it’s still in danger because the children aren’t learning it as much.

NEKOYA WIEHL: I think learning our language is important because there’s not a lot of Elders left to teach it, not a lot of people know it anymore, and I want to help make songs someday.

ALLAN HAYTON: You like singing? Nice. Singing is a good way to learn as well, because there’s a rhythm to it, and a pattern, you can memorize it. It’s a good way to learn language to get that repetition.

ALLAN HAYTON: Michael, you started teaching the course. What’s that been like for you?

MICHAEL DEAN, INSTRUCTOR: It’s been great. I’m not a speaker of Native language myself, but it’s been a great opportunity to explore issues of the deep connection between identity and language, the importance of preserving culture by preserving language, the benefit and value of learning a second language in and of itself. It’s been really cool to see the different reasons that students are wanting to learn a Native language. Some of the students say they have Elder neighbors that they would like to carry on a conversation with, others say they want to be Miss WEIO and want to do their speech in their language. Others want to teach others or want to help preserve the language. It’s run the gamut, all these different reasons, and it’s been really, really rewarding to be a part of that process for them.

ALLAN HAYTON: I definitely appreciate that you’re willing to take this step and put yourself out there because there aren’t teachers available a lot of times for these languages. What are some of the things you’ve been finding challenging in this process since you started?

MICHAEL DEAN: One thing that’s been challenging is we’ve wanted to find fluent speakers to come in and have some direct instruction in these languages, and it’s been hard to coordinate that. That’s been a challenge. And I think that would be of great, great value in that process of learning. It’s also been challenging technologically occasionally; it can be a little bit glitchy on our end, using the Chromebooks. It’s not the best platform, I think. I don’t think it’s been a software issue, our hardware has been challenging.

ALLAN HAYTON: What sort of things would you like to see, in the future, if this class were to continue?

MICHAEL DEAN: I would like to see if we could get others involved, and I’d also like to have some materials that are a little more universal that we can offer to students, maybe in the form of some different modules, and I know that you’ve mentioned that that could be in the works. So those are a couple of things I think I would like to see added to the program.

ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. Thank you very much for what work you’re doing. Thank you.

MICHAEL DEAN: Thank you.

ALLAN HAYTON (TO STUDENTS): Do you have any advice for other learners who might be interested in learning one of these languages?

NAHSHON ATTLA: Some advice that I’d have to other people trying to learn these languages is that you have to keep up with it, because it’s difficult. And, as you said, repetition is one of the only ways to memorize it and you’ve just gotta keep on trying again and again.

MATTHEW READ: I would say just don’t get discouraged. The Native languages can be very difficult to learn, but it’s so incredibly worth it to learn it and learn your culture through the language. It’s definitely worth just keeping trying at it.

SAM ONTOOGUK-GURITZ: I think the best advice I could give to one of the learners, or new learners, is take advantage of your resources. Like if you have an Elder you can learn from, listen to them, and if you have books that you can learn from, read them. And also pay attention to the rules of the language because they can get kind of confusing, but they’re really important.

HOLLY ERICK: My advice for the other learners is don’t stop studying. It’s okay if your practice is slow; learning a language can be difficult.

ALLAN HAYTON: That’s good advice, it can take time. You might feel like you’re moving very slowly, but you are moving. So it’s good to keep that motivation going.

NEKOYA WIEHL: Some advice is don’t get frustrated if you’re pronouncing it wrong, because it takes a while to get the language right.

ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, that’s very important, because think of little children. A child might say, ‘I goed to the store,’ instead of, ‘Oh, you meant I went to the store?’ But we let kids make mistakes, and so it’s important that any learner, whatever age, has permission to make mistakes and that’s part of the learning process, right? Make a mistake and then next time you’ll learn from those mistakes.

I just want to thank all of you for the work you’re doing, it’s very important. When I was your age, there were a lot more speakers in my language and many of them have passed on. I don’t hear the language as often as when I was young, but I’m very inspired by seeing young people like yourselves picking up, learning, doing your best to take advantage of the resources and what materials are there to begin to learn these languages.

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 or 907.459.2048.