KENAI — Jon Ross is drawn to the scenery, the soil and the spirit as he steps lightly through Kalifornsky Village.
Up here, where the sounds of the road are overtaken by the sound of Unhghenesditnu, the farthest over river, Ross reflects. Behind him are a few graves and further beyond are depressions in the ground where his forbearers once lived — cache pits, house pits.
It is his favorite spot — a connection with the past, a reminder of the lifestyle and while so much Dena’ina heritage left this site after colonization, the language once fluently spoken here thrives inside Ross.
The sentiment is perhaps best captured in one of his favorite sayings — shts’itsatna ha nacheyakda’ina da’a be(backslash) qude(backslash).
“That means that my ancestors and forbearers are still walking with me,” said the 40-year-old who lives a few miles south on the bluff in Kasilof.
Each day as he hones his mind and tongue he takes another stride in that journey. With every read translation, audio recording or elder conversation, Ross gains on his goal to be a fluent Dena’ina speaker. Only a handful of Natives fluent in Dena’inaq’ — about 25, he estimated — remain. Most are over the age of 60 and scattered across Southcentral Alaska, he said.
“I think most everybody who is living today has somehow bought off on the idea that it is going away as a spoken language,” Ross said. “What I’m saying is, ‘No, it is not going to go away, it is going to come back because we want it to come back, I want it to come back.’”
That’s the chorus — Dena’ina qenaga shech’nutdalen: the Dena’ina language is coming back to me — to a song he wrote called Shech’nutdalen. He opened his laptop and started his music player where many other stories, songs and speakers are catalogued.
“I want to learn, I want to listen, I want to think, I want to speak Dena’inaq’,” Ross sings accompanied by guitar in Dena’inaq’. “Looks like I’m going to read, looks like I’m going to write, looks like I’m going to sing, looks like I’m going to dance.”
Ross grew up in British Columbia, Kenai and Kodiak, but returned to Kenai each summer during his youth. Oh his father’s side he is Scottish; on his mother’s Dena’ina, Russian and Sugpiaq.
He didn’t grow up with the language, but his curiosity was piqued early.
In Kodiak, he ordered “Ethnography of the Tanaina” and later his mother gave him another book — Peter Kalifornsky’s “A Dena’ina Legacy.”
“The whole thing was written in Dena’ina on the left side and on the right side was English,” Ross said. “It just blew me away — I never really heard it, I never really thought about the language and here is this huge book with all of our stories, our history all written in our language, our dialect.”
After college, Ross started working for the Southcentral Foundation and as part of the job helped host groups of Maori, indigenous people from New Zealand.
The Maori were interested in learning about what Alaska Natives were doing with health care. Ross soon noticed the Maori were strong in their culture, language and traditions and he became impressed and inspired during the many trips they made up North.
“One of the last times that I hosted them, they basically let me know that if you don’t go to their country and learn from them and have this reciprocal relationship, then it doesn’t look good for them,” he said. “I was very pleased to hear that because I immediately put together a team that went over to New Zealand to learn from them what they’ve done with education.”
As the Maori stood proud and sang loud, Ross knew he wanted to do the same with Dena’inaq’. Those feelings were amplified on another trip when Ross saw a Maori man in tears during a language conference.
“This guy, he couldn’t speak his language, and just the weight of that and the shame and the whatever — the guy was just crying because he had lost it and everyone in his whole tribe had lost it,” Ross said. “Here he is in this meeting with all these other people and they can speak their language, but he can’t speak his.”
In total, Ross went to New Zealand three times throughout the 2000s, but coming back he had a nagging feeling.
“It was like there was this void, cultural void, language void,” he said. “I see the culture and the language as a treasure and I wanted to do something to turn the situation around.”
Ross started spending a lot of time with Dena’ina elders, applied for a position on the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Council and took a position as the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s president and CEO where he worked for about eight years.
Since, he has helped to partner organizations to compile and distribute language resources in addition to helping maintain a Dena’ina language program. After leaving the Native Heritage Center, he started two of his own businesses — Tsiltan Management Group and Language Insights, the latter being a company he would like to produce language materials to help other villages.
“When you can speak the language by definition you are getting the Dena’ina world view,” he said. “You are getting the history, the stories and it makes you feel like a complete human being.”
Dena’inaq’ is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn and speak, Ross said.
“Basically, if you think the language is too hard and you are not going to be able to learn it — you are not going to be able to learn it,” he said. “It is about changing your mind about whether you can do it or not.”
Its structure is complex and very different from other languages, he said.
“It is affectionately referred to as the train wreck,” he said.
The language has a verb stem, which is usually two or three letters at the end of word. The verb stem is preceded by up to 56 prefixes, he said. A Dena’ina verb will also contain a lot more information than an English one.
Ross, at times, struggles to put into words exactly how the language works. In Dena’inaq’ one speaks the energetic sound vibrations of something, not just words that describe, he said. That is why being able to hear the sound vibrations and being able to speak them becomes so important, he said.
Stacks and stacks of books sit on Ross’ kitchen table filled with words, verbs, nouns and rules for Dena’inaq’, but Ross tries to stay away from the hyper-scholastic side of learning the language.
“I have tried to take more of an organic approach, just listening and trying to understand,” he said.
Even though Ross has made progress, he said he still has a long way to go to becoming fluent. And he doesn’t like to boast about how far along he has come — he contends he will always be learning more.
“It is a journey,” he said. “Unless you have an extreme commitment and dedication, it is just not going to happen.”
If Ross does become fluent, he would be the first Native that calls Kenai home to do so since Kalifornsky, he said. There are other fluent speakers on the Kenai Peninsula, he said, but they are not originally from the area. He would also be one of the first in many years, he said, to not grow up with the language but still become fluent.
Preferably, Ross said he would have liked to have been immersed in the language as a child. Fluent speakers have all of the language’s complex rules ready in their heads, but teaching and learning without immersion is difficult for those of all ages, he said.
“It is kind of hard to do that when you don’t have a lot of people you can talk to and spend time with,” he said. “It is one of our challenges, but at the same time we have so many written materials, so many audio materials that we can compensate for that.”
Ross is currently learning from Helen Dick, a Lime Village elder, and is learning a different dialect than the one spoken in the Kenai area, the inland dialect. Since the Dena’ina language covers a large area across Southcentral Alaska, some dialects have more speakers than others, he said.
The differences between the dialects aren’t great, but the differences formed through the different tribes’ isolation from one another, he said. Ross said he is not a staunch advocate of the Kenai dialect, unlike others, and has no problem learning a different dialect.
“We may have preserved all of the dialectical differences, but my hope is to (become) more unified with our language,” he said. “Of course we don’t have the resources of living native speakers and so we have to do that if we want it to survive.”
Ross contends modern society could learn a lot from the Dena’ina, who had one of the most sustainable lifestyles, he said. Learning the language not only reconnects the speaker to the history and life, it also shares the Dena’ina world view, he said.
“It is a connection with the earth and everything around you and respect, it is a relationship,” he said. “Everything has a spirit, the trees, the rocks. That is not a typical world view of our modern society.”
‘What you intend’
When asked how others react when they learn he is trying to become fluent in his native language, Ross paused and thought. Learning a language, he said, is simply not valued as highly in Alaska or the Lower 48 as it is in other places in the world.
That’s frustrating, he said.
During the colonization process, Alaska Natives were seen as less human than others, Ross said and those psychological impacts were passed down through each generation.
“We were oppressed,” he said. “The policy of the government was to get rid of the language and basically do whatever you need to do to make sure that they have control of the land and the resources and if there is anything standing in the way, do things to mitigate that.”
Ross said he would love to see the public school system teach Dena’inaq’ as much or more than any other languages taught, but locals need to believe it can happen. He hopes his optimism will spur others to follow.