Teacher preserves traditional Athabascan values

Woman has taught Denaakk'e to hundreds

Posted: Thursday, July 05, 2007

FAIRBANKS - If Susan Paskvan had her wish, all the people in the Interior villages along the Koyukuk River would know how to speak their native language - Koyukon Athabascan, or Denaakk'e.

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Right now, only about 300 villagers speak it, she said, plus some who have moved to Fairbanks. That doesn't include children.

For the last four years, Paskvan has coordinated the Yukon-Koyukuk School District's Native language program. By videoconference from Fairbanks, she helps teach Denaakk'e and Lower Tanana Athabascan to students in the district's nine villages. Other times, she'll gather up students, parents and elders and go camping near the villages to immerse students in Athabascan language and culture.

"She just tries to grab each opportunity to use the language," said Martha Demoski, a teacher from Nulato who has worked with Paskvan at the camps.

At one summer camp, Paskvan had students put up signs all over with the Denaakk'e words for things and made them repeat the words for whatever they were doing. Students made birch bark baskets, fished and kept journals in English and Denaakk'e.

"She had a way of drawing them in and teaching the language, making sure they learn," Demoski said. Girls would gather around her when she was doing beadwork, and she would teach them.

Over the years, Paskvan has taught some Denaakk'e to hundreds of students.

To Paskvan, the Athabascan culture is contained in the language itself. Athabascans believe certain animals have strong spirits. So in Denaakk'e, boys will call a black bear by name, ses, but girls will only refer to it indirectly - belel daaletl'edzee, they'll say, or "the black one."

"There's so much in a language," Paskvan said. "You're not only learning a language, you're also learning the traditional values."

Paskvan lived in Koyukuk until her family moved to Fairbanks when she was 7. Her father, Benedict Jones, worked for the state's department of transportation. Her mother, Eliza Jones, taught language classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and co-authored the "Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary," a tome of more than 1,000 pages.

Paskvan keeps a copy of the dictionary in her office. Growing up, she learned Denaakk'e words and expressions but mostly spoke English. Her Native name is K'etsoo, a pet name her great grandmother gave her meaning "somebody's grandmother."

"Onee'," she told her new Fairbanks neighbors when they came to the door, without knowing she was speaking Athabascan.

Paskvan graduated from West Valley High School in 1981 and went to college at UAF, where she took classes taught by her mother. She kept her notes from those classes, but didn't dive into Denaakk'e till later.

First, Paskvan went to work for the Tanana Chiefs Conference helping people get title to their land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. She married Steve Paskvan, who teaches at West Valley, and they had two children, Jason, 14, and Adam, 13.

"And then I realized, I have to learn this, I have to teach my kids," she said, referring to Denaakk'e.

Paskvan signed up for a mentor-apprentice program through TCC's Interior Athabascan Tribal College and spent two hours a day, five days a week, with a woman named Madeline Williams, who spoke the language. Her sons went with her.

Paskvan studied in Williams' home, rather than a classroom, and learned words for actual objects, rather than pictures on a page. When they cooked, she learned the words for individual ingredients and the act of mixing them.

A few years later, the Yukon-Koyukuk School District board directed the district to provide Native language instruction in its schools.

"I went around and asked different people," Superintendent Christopher Simon said. "(Paskvan) was just so excited about the Native language, it was like, 'Here's our person."'

Around the same time, the district won a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to improve reading and writing skills and teach Athabascan. The grant provided for curriculum development and the language camps, as well as language training for teachers and teaching aides.

Now the district teaches the two Athabascan languages half an hour every day to students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Simon said it's working.

"We hear anecdotal stories of kids, you know, when they're playing, they're using the native language," he said.

Paskvan said the language is complex and the teachers, including herself, are learning as they go.

Word roots are added on to convey something that could take a whole sentence in English, she said. Kids like to learn the word edeghoyeneegheleedeneek, which means roughly, "take care of yourself."

Paskvan co-teaches the district's language classes with her mother, Jones, who joins the videoconferences from Koyukuk.

"I think most people want to learn their languages," she said, but it takes lots of time, and people also want to join the workforce and do other things.

One of Paskvan's goals is to set up an interactive Web site where anyone can go and see pictures, hear snippets of Denaakk'e, and read translations. Another goal is to finish her masters degree, for which she's compiling a history of the Kaltag area by telling the stories behind place names.

For now, Paskvan is working to keep the district's language programs going after the federal grant ends this year. She said it makes her happy to go into communities and ask kids how they're doing in Denaakk'e, and have them respond in it.

Having kids speak the language means a lot to the elders, too, she said. "It really gives them joy to know that it's not being lost."

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