In this Storyteller language profile, our language revitalization program director, Allan Hayton, speaks with Denaakk’e language learner, Kimberly Nicholas, who is also a member of our first Native language Mentor-Apprentice Program cohort. You can watch or listen to Kimberly’s full profile, or read a transcript, with minor edits for clarity.
ALLAN HAYTON: Juk drin gweezhree shalak, shijyaa naii. Nakhwaa dhiidii geenjit gwiintł’oo shoo ihłii, ts’a’ mahsi’ choo nakhwaihjyaa nihthan. Juk drin Kimberly Nicholas vaa dhiidii, ts’a’ vats’a’ geekhihkyaa. Jidii diginjik vaa gwitr’it t’agwah’in eenjit vahaałkat. Mahsi’ choo, chan hee mahsi’ choo naihjyaa nihthan.
Welcome, everyone. I’m very glad to see you, glad to be with you. Today we have a guest, Kimberly Nicholas, and I will be speaking with her about the work she’s doing with Denaakk’e, Athabascan language, in different projects she has been working on. So I’m very happy to introduce and to welcome Kimberly Nicholas.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Thank you, Allan. Thanks for inviting me also. I’m really happy to be here.
Me’enh Nezoonh, Kimberly Nicholas se’ooze’. Eenaa’ Thelma Saunders be’ooze’, yeł eetaa’ Lawrence Saunders me’ooze’ gheelaa’ee. Sekkun’ Eli Nicholas me’ooze’ and Seden’ekkaa Sida Giana yeł Eli hebe’ooze’. Ggaałdoh hūts’enh ts’aadaanslet, Fairbanks lesdo.
My name is Me’enh Nezoonh, Kimberly Nicholas. My parents are Thelma Saunders and the late Lawrence Saunders from Kaltag. My husband is Eli Nicholas and our children are Sida, Giana and Eli, and we’re from Kaltag but we live here in Fairbanks.
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. It’s very good to have you here with us today. I’m trying to think when we first met, it might have been at the university, right?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Oh, yes, years ago.
ALLAN HAYTON: Lorraine David was teaching and Siri Tuttle was also in the classroom and I think we also took the comparative Athabascan grammar class there at the university. That’s the first time I met you. But I imagine you must have been involved in the language learning much sooner than that – going further back. So would you like to share when you started learning Denaakk’e?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I grew up hearing Denaakk’e. So in my house, my mom and dad always had visitors and some uncles and grandmas and grandpas and my parents are a little bit older. So they used to speak Denaakk’e to each other all the time.
So I just grew up listening to stories. One of my favorite memories was my bedroom was upstairs and I would wake up in the morning and I would just listen to all the chatter going on downstairs when there was potlatch or something in Kaltag and all the grandmas and grandpas and everybody was busy cooking and visiting downstairs. I would listen to them.
So I grew up hearing and listening to it and then also in school we had bilingual teachers in Kaltag. So we had it in school also and then when I first moved up here to the university, I wanted to do language. But there was no Denaakk’e teachers at that time.
So when Lorraine David started teaching alongside Siri Tuttle, I jumped. I took all her classes and then I took the writing class with Siri and then I eventually got enough credits in that language to do like a minor in Alaska Native languages. So that was cool.
ALLAN HAYTON: Wow.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: So just learning and recently I’ve just been kind of making a transition to teaching others. Just the stuff I know and then putting people in touch with language mentors and just learning and creating a language community.
ALLAN HAYTON: Hoozoonh (good). So why would you say that language learning and sharing is important to you?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I think just to continue like our community. It’s important to me to teach my kids and I really would like to start speaking and understanding and listening to stories. Like my Aunt Lidwin in Kaltag, she tells me lots of stories in Denaakk’e and I can pick up bits and pieces of what she’s saying but I really would love to get to where I can understand her. One of the things that I just remember is when my dad used to tell stories and stuff and then he would say it in English and he said it would be so much funnier in Denaakk’e. I would say, “Man, you know, I really wish I could understand.” So I think that’s one of the things that drive me to keep going.
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. So who are some of the people who were helping you along this process as you were learning?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: So many people. So many people. There’s a group of us right now that are kind of pushing forward, I think, with building community. My cousin Diloola and Teisha and Dewey, we all have families and so it’s important for us to teach our kids too.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s awesome.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: And yourself and Diloola are going to be part of the Mentor-Apprentice Program that is upcoming.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yes. We just got an email a few weeks ago that we got accepted. Our language team got accepted to the Mentor-Apprentice Program through the Doyon Foundation and I’m going to be paired up with my Aunt Lidwin from Kaltag. I’m really looking forward to hearing her stories and being able to start a talk with her.
When I go home to Kaltag, I listen to her stories anyway. But I think just putting us together in this kind of space, there’s like the intention that we will learn from each other and she will teach me. Diloola is also going to be paired up with my mom. So I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will be good.
ALLAN HAYTON: I think it’s a good strategy to work together and support one another as you’re going through this process.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: It’s very important to have someone in your corner who understands what you’re going through and to help her and she can help you.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah. I’m really excited too because my mother Thelma and Lidwin work well together and I think it will be good.
ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah. What other type of activities have you been involved with in language?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I think more recently with the way things have gone with the pandemic and everything, we kind of switched our language group, Denaakk’e Dodeenee, to Zoom. So we have an online language community that we’re growing and people come on like once a week for like an hour. We’re doing it at lunchtimes right now but we’re open to having a weekend one or evening one. We just want to create a language-learning community and make everyone feel like they can do it.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s great.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: And you’re also involved with the Molly of Denali dubbing project we have.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah. So we auditioned, me and the kids. So me and my three kids, we sent in an audition tape in. We got accepted to be a part of the Molly of Denali Denaakk’e. I think there are two episodes.
ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, there are two stories. It’s “Have Canoe, Will Paddle” and “Name Game.” There are two stories that were translated by Lorraine David along with her sister Alberta and they did a great job. I need to go record her but we’re just getting started in that process. But I’m very glad you’re working together as a family on that project.
I think you’ve mentioned also there are some culture camps you’re traveling to as a part of your job.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah. Currently I’m working with the Division of Wellness and Prevention at Tanana Chiefs Conference and we are gearing up for all the culture camps this summer. So far we’ve got Allakaket, Ruby, Nulato, Huslia … I think those are the ones having culture camps and I‘m hoping to reach out to a few more villages and see what kind of activities they have planned. It’s nice now that everything is slowly opening back up again and we’re starting to focus our services back out in the village, which is really good.
ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, that’s great. Do you have any techniques that you find helpful as you’re learning, whether it’s like flash cards or some people have mnemonics or a sound will help them remember what the word is or things like that?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: There’s a few that I picked up over the years. I’m not sure the technical terms of them. But I think Susan taught us to break the words down by syllable and then go backwards. So with the last syllable first and then at the middle and then the beginning and then with the whole word.
Also in our house, we have a whiteboard on our wall and we write phrases in Denaakk’e on there. The kids are free and they will write stuff on there. Like “go feed your dogs” or “feed the dogs.” You know, just stuff like that, that we say there. I’m so happy. They will just say stuff like enaa maasee’ (thank you) around the house or noneetenaaghge’aan’ (see you later). It just makes me happy that they’re actually using words because a lot of us know a lot of words.
ALLAN HAYTON: I really like that strategy with starting at the end of the word because that’s where the stem of the Athabascan verbs and then they conjugate in the other direction. So I love that approach because that could be the hard part is learning the verbs. You could learn a lot of vocabulary, like lists of nouns, animals, colors. You know, on and on. But then if you don’t know how to utilize the verbs, that could stop you from speaking in full sentences.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah. It seems like some of our words or phrases are one really long word. So I think it helps to break it down like that. I work a lot with kids. So my background is in working with kids and Head Start-age kids and using silly voices when you’re saying words helps. Using monster voices when you’re saying words, that helps and I think the kids love it. They pick it up right away when it’s playful and fun and you can make mistakes and you just move on.
ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, that’s very important as well that mistakes are allowed. Nobody is perfect but it’s part of the learning process to make mistakes and then you correct yourself or eventually start picking it up.
Are there any challenges that you have found as you’ve been going along?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I think one of the biggest challenges that I feel like I had to overcome was living outside my community and not being around my parents or my aunties or grandmas as much when I first moved up here.
Up here in Fairbanks, there’s a lot of people from home in Kaltag. But we’re all spread out all over. So I think just not being in a close-knit community was a bit of a challenge in terms of my language learning. But I think with this online Zoom learning community, it brought us all like focused in again and it feels good. I like it.
ALLAN HAYTON: Yeah, that is important. I think when we are in Fairbanks, a lot of times we just don’t see each other. There’s a lot of Gwich’in speakers here in town but they’re all on their own, going to their work and their jobs and their homes and they don’t end up seeing each other as often. I’ve heard that from very fluent speakers, even they’ll forget … how did we say that again? Just because you’re not speaking it as often.
What kind of plans do you have for the future for language learning and teaching?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I think just continuing to keep this Zoom going. Also I want to start having in-person meetings and gatherings again and creating spaces with the intention to cook and talk or feed people and talk, stuff like that.
And also I would like to start practicing our songs again, our traditional songs. We used to have a group, an active group here in Fairbanks called the Downriver Singers and we used to practice all the time and we haven’t in a really long time. That’s one of the things that I think it’s good for my wellness. When I’m singing in Denaakk’e or when I say things or when I have a little text conversation with one of my friends in Denaakk’e, it just makes me feel good.
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. As a part of this interview, we’ve been asking guests if they would like to share like a word that we would feature as a word of the month. Would you like to share something?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Yeah, I was thinking about that. Since it’s the time we would normally be out on the river, subsistence fishing and doing things with our family, I was thinking about the word “ggaał,” which is the king salmon.
ALLAN HAYTON: Beautiful. We’ll share that on our website for July. July is the king salmon month in Gwich’in. We would say łuk choo (king salmon). Big fish basically.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: I just would love for everybody to, if you know words, start saying words out loud. One of the things that helped me if I was practicing a phrase, is when I’m driving in the car, I will just say it out loud and just speaking it out loud helps.
ALLAN HAYTON: It’s a good bit of advice there and a lot of good things you’ve shared. Thank you for spending your time with us today. I know you’re very busy and a busy mother, busy at work and a lot of things. So thank you.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s good to see you again.
ALLAN HAYTON: Mahsi’ choo naihjyaa nihthan. I’d like to say thank you. Gwiinzii adak’aantii, take good care of yourself.
KIMBERLY NICHOLAS: Edeghoyeneegheleedeneek. Take care of yourself.
We are pleased to highlight the efforts of individuals committed to the revitalization of our Native languages. Find more Storyteller profiles at doyonfoundation.com/storyteller. If you would like to nominate an individual for our Storyteller language profile series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 907.459.2048.