Dauenhauer teaches language that's on the edge

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Richard Dauenhauer has a master's degree in the German language but he is focused on bringing attention to languages a little closer to home.

The longtime Juneau resident and author was recently appointed as the University of Alaska President's Professor of Alaska Native Languages, a three-year position at the University of Alaska Southeast.

"Nothing that we do in German or Russian at the University of Alaska Southeast is going to impact the future of the language, or French or Spanish for that matter," he said. "But with Alaska Native languages we can make a difference and I really do believe this."

Dauenhauer said this is a critical time to focus on Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages because the fluent speakers are growing older and many have already died.

"The difference is with the Native languages in Alaska, this is the homeland, and if the language dies out here it dies out forever," he said.

UAS anthropology professor Daniel Monteith says the Tlingit culture is alive and well, but the language is in need of some attention.

"Linguists have kind of predicted, unless we get younger speakers learning the language, that we probably have ballpark 20 to 30 years more before Tlingit will no longer be a living language," said Monteith. "For Haida, we have our work cut out for us even more. The time is shorter."

Dauenhauer has begun teaching a couple of upper-division Tlingit courses at UAS this semester, including a distance delivery class that has audio hook-ups between Sitka, Klukwan, Hoonah and Juneau. He said his wife, Nora, whose first language is Tlingit, has been helping teach in and out of the classroom.

"There are certain things that I do feel very comfortable doing and there's other things that I don't, so it helps to have the teams."

Dauenhauer said one of the approaches they intend to use is having teams consisting of elders and younger speakers who teach together. He said it is important to get the younger speakers excited and motivated about Native languages.

"You can have a class of 30 students and be up there drilling them but it's going to go in one ear and out the other," he said. "But if you have students who really want to learn things that are important to them and you have a mentor who can coach them they can really learn."

Dauenhauer said he thinks Native students who learn their traditional language and take pride in their culture will do better in other academic courses.

"The schools have traditionally been pretty much the enemies of Native language and culture, historically," he said. "I think with the revival and doing the languages in the school and getting them in the academic canon in a meaningful way ... you do get a psychological boost."

Dauenhauer said he intends to get students to help make a body of Tlingit literature, by transcribing recordings of oral histories and traditions.

"It's very important at this stage to be able to write the names down correctly so the next generation will know what they are and how to pronounce them," he said. "It's extremely important to do this while there are still speakers alive who have that full range, because some of the younger speakers don't have that full range that the elderly have."

Dauenhauer said he hopes to get more involvement from different Native organizations and corporations around Southeast Alaska to help support the young and old speakers alike.

"I thinks it's exciting times and it would be a matter of working with these organizations so that they would have a certain sense of ownership but also a certain sense of funding responsibility," he said.

Monteith agreed that collaboration between different organizations would be beneficial to the language.

"With the programs we are developing here, hopefully they will help train teachers or apprentices that can work with elders in communities throughout Southeast with all three languages," Monteith said. "The time is now. The exciting thing is we have young people stepping up to learn the languages that they want to teach in some of the schools."

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