In this Storyteller language profile, our language revitalization program director, Allan Hayton, speaks with Loretta Lolnitz, an apprentice in our new Mentor Apprentice Program who is learning Denaakk’e (Koyukon) with her mentor and mother, Ethel Esmailka. We invite you to watch or listen to Loretta’s full interview, or read a transcript, with minor edits for clarity.
ALLAN HAYTON: Drin gwiinzii, good day, very happy to have you here with us and sharing a bit of your story with our Storyteller series. Would you like to introduce yourself?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Se’ooze’ is Loretta Lolnitz, Ernie Esmailka Sr. eetaa’ nelaanh. Ethel Dayton Esmailka eenaa’ nelaanh. Andrew Esmailka setseye nelaanh. Rosie Cleaver Esmailka setsoo nelaanh. Albert Dayton setseye nelaanh. Esther Pitka Dayton setsoo nelaanh. Meneelghaadze’ T’oh Koyukon hʉt’aana.
ALLAN HAYTON: And you can share your name and introduction in English?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: My name is Loretta Lolnitz. I was born and raised in Koyukuk and I am Koyukon Athabaskan. I am a part of the Doyon Foundation Native Language Mentor Apprentice Program.
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. So why do you think it’s important to learn your language as an apprentice? Who’s your mentor?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: My mentor is Ethel Esmailka, my mother.
ALLAN HAYTON: And why do you feel it’s important to learn Denaakk’e?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Because it’s ours, we own it and it’s a diminished language and I want to learn it.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s awesome. So how’s it been going? MAP is a one-year program … how’s it been going so far since you just started?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: We met in August here and then we started early September. It’s been really interesting to try to drag the back of my throat and to use my tongue. That’s tough; I have to keep doing it and it makes my mom laugh when I keep trying. She does not get impatient; she just says, “You’ll get it.”
ALLAN HAYTON: Awesome. Yeah, it takes different speech muscles to speak Denaakk’e than English. Same with Gwichʼin, my language.
What’s a typical week when you and your mom meet? Are there other people that join as well or is it just the two of you? How often during the week do you meet?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: We start early in the week, like Monday or Tuesday in the evenings because I work a full-time job. Sometimes my grandson, Ramey, would sit with us and just listen. My sister Vera is now making it a point to try to drop in; she finds it really interesting. She’s two years younger than me. Most often it’s my mom and I that do it in her home.
ALLAN HAYTON: How do you structure things? What sorts of goals and things do you want to learn? Have you laid it out or do you agree beforehand and then think about it?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: We laid it out for the first three lessons. We’re in the third one now, but we laid that out when we first started. The traditional visit was the first one. And because we went into the moose season, the parts on a moose was the second one. Now we’re into the third one and that’s introduction of me. And when I feel comfortable enough to get into my great-grandparents, it’s going to take research, then we will make the next three lessons. For me, that’s fine; it’s my mom who wants to do it that way because she has to think about what it is that she wants me to know, too. And we do follow the sample lessons book; we really like that book, it gives us incentive to say, “Hey, you want to try this one, or would you like to do something different?” For example, the moose season was just there, and the moose was there, and mom said if and when we have luck, we’re going to do moose parts. So that’s how it went.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s great. So what have you found most challenging as you’re learning?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Lack of other Elders in our village. There’s only Eliza and Ben and mom that are fluent in Koyukuk. That’s a really huge challenge. I mean, I just can’t go up to somebody and say, “I’m taking this course and I don’t know if I’m saying it and mom wants me to find out if I’m going in the correct direction with this sentence.” It’s different. That’s a challenge.
ALLAN HAYTON: When you were growing up, were there many other Elders who were speaking in Koyukuk?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah, I could remember just sitting there and listening to them.
ALLAN HAYTON: Did you understand what they were talking about?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: I really don’t know. I know that when I went to my grandparents, my dad’s parents, they were old. I was like maybe 6 or 7 and Grandma Tondina would tell me, “Leedo,” and I would sit on this gasoline box, and she would put this little cup, a really pretty fancy cup with a saucer, and she would put that there and she would tell me, “Tsaay neszes, drink tea.” That memory came back when we were doing the traditional visit, the first lessons we did. I told mom, “Mom, I remember Grandma saying that, I remember hearing it.” And they were already old, so they could not speak clear English, my grandparents, my dad’s parents. I remember them. I remember Denaakk’e language being spoken.
ALLAN HAYTON: All over the village, different Elders.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: All over.
ALLAN HAYTON: The traditional visit, how would you describe that? Do you feel okay sharing with us?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah. This whole language thing has been interesting to me. Mom said when they get visitors, and she learned this as a young girl, too, people would come into the house and they would talk about the weather, and then they would talk about drinking tea or coffee, and then they would talk about food. Every time a visitor came in, food was offered to them. It didn’t matter if it was just crackers and fish and tea, but that was done every time. And I remember when people came in, I remember when they would talk in Denaakk’e, but I’m not clear about what was said.
ALLAN HAYTON: It’s good that you have those memories, and they’re coming back as you’re working with your mom and speaking, learning the language.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah. I never knew that was the practice until we actually did it, because at my house we would say, “You want some tea or some coffee?” Or if we’re eating, “Do you want to eat some food?”
ALLAN HAYTON: Nice. So what have you found most enjoyable so far? What are you looking forward to learning coming up?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: I learned to sing Denaakk’e songs from my village before I knew what I was singing about. One of the most exciting things for me is to know what I’m singing. It never occurred to me to know what I’m singing until I got into this program and someone said to me, “If you’re going to sing your own songs, then you need to know what you’re singing about.” And I find that really exciting. I find it really exciting because I already can sing it.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s wonderful.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah.
ALLAN HAYTON: So there’s the Mentor Apprentice Program … are there other types of language activities or classes or culture camp or anything else you are working on with the language?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah. Yesterday morning when we were opening up the gathering, Teisha is the moderator, and she said, “Mendon nezoonh, good morning … seggenaa’ kkaa, good morning, my friend.” And mom and I never said that yet. She said it so clearly and she asked people to say it back to her in whatever they had, Gwichʼin, Benhti, Deg Xinag. There’s a variety of Athabascans there. So that was really interesting. I wrote that on my agenda to say this morning. I was ready this morning.
And then the net-making portion of the gathering, I ask different people about the tools, what’s this tool and what’s this tool and how do you say fishnet. And so I had help putting it in my notebook on my phone, the correct way to spell it, and I really appreciated that. One word was explained to me from the Kaltag area, another word was explained to me from the Hughes area. And then Tristan typed in and Kimberly typed in, and so I learned on my phone, I didn’t even know you can drag that L and do that. I learned that. And I’m glad for that. So lessons learned. There are so many Athabascans there, I’m just keeping an open mind. If I get a word from Hughes, wow, even though they may say it a little different.
ALLAN HAYTON: A friend of mine is in the same workshop and he’s Deg Xit’an and was able to understand the Denaakk’e prayer that was being shared and he said it’s just a little bit different.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: A Deg Xit’an guy did a prayer song this morning. It was beautiful. He did such a beautiful job.
ALLAN HAYTON: Are there any words of advice you might have for other learners or words of encouragement?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: It doesn’t have to be the big things; it can be the little things, too. It’s a growing experience because, for me, it’s like eating. I’m getting my cup full. Inside me, it feels good.
And be brave enough to reach out to somebody else. I go back to the conversation Bertina and I had; we’re not alone in wanting to be fully Athabascan.
ALLAN HAYTON: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Are there any words that have stood out for you that you’ve learned and would like to share with others? We might use it for the Native word of the month.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah, bekk’uł. Neck. When mom said, “Okay, we have the moose now and I have this,” and she tore a moose photo out of the TCC calendar. She said, “We’re going to go over this and write it down and there’s going to be lots of parts, so you need to write it down.” So to the best of my ability, I pointed to a part or she pointed to a part and she’d say, “This is, this is.” But she would say, “This is deneege benen, moose back, deneege dzaaye’, moose heart.” And then she got to the neck and she said, “deneege bekk’uł.” And this old memory just popped up in me; when I was a little girl, I would sit around where my grandparents, my grandpa, my dad, and all my uncles, when they would talk and they’d laugh and in Denaakk’e they’d say, “bekk’uł, I got you by the bekk’uł. And when mom said that, I remembered that and I never knew that it meant “I got you by the neck.”
ALLAN HAYTON: Oh!
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah, now I know. That was something that stood out to me.
ALLAN HAYTON: Nice.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: The other thing was, I have four sons and the youngest one, I gave him a Denaakk’e name, Oyh.
ALLAN HAYTON: Snowshoe.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: “Oyh K’edzaaye, Snowshoe Heart.” It’s that little pattern that crisscrosses all over on the snowshoe, and it almost looks like a heart, so that’s the name of that little part. And I did not say it right. So when I went and saw Eliza, I told her, “I want to give my youngest son this Denaakk’e name because it’s something I know; I was a snowshoe racer for 20 years, and one of the things I learned were the parts on the snowshoes. And I loved that little Oyh K’edzaaye, that’s how I was saying it. Well, Eliza corrected me and said, it’s Oyh Dzaaye. So she wrote it down in her journal of Denaakk’e names of people in Koyukuk.
ALLAN HAYTON: That seems like a good name for someone if you’re wanting them to be a good hunter using the snowshoes out on the land.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Yeah, and he uses snowshoes, he owns his own. We all own our own.
ALLAN HAYTON: Nice. So anything else you’d like to share with us today?
LORETTA LOLNITZ: I feel really blessed to be a part of this Mentor Apprentice Program, and I’m glad it was offered and I’m glad my mom and I are able to do it. She likes it, and she said, “I’m also remembering.” So it’s a fantastic program; I could see it blossoming out. So I just wanted to say thank you.
ALLAN HAYTON: Well, thank you for your time and for joining us today. I wish you the best in your future learning with your mom and sharing that joy and love with others. Mahsi’ choo, enaa baasee’.
LORETTA LOLNITZ: Oho.
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.