Dictionary seeks to preserve endangered native Han language

Only a handful of fluent speakers remain in Alaska

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2006

EAGLE - The language of the Han people of the upper Yukon basin will be preserved in dictionary form thanks to the efforts of Belgian linguist Willem De Reuse and the Alaska Native Language Center.

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Han Athabaskan is one of the most endangered native languages in Alaska, with only seven or eight fluent speakers remaining in Eagle Village, with two more in Dawson, Canada.

Larry Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said the language has been long ignored and is only now getting the attention it deserves.

"For us it is a very high priority project to get it documented for future generations of Han people, as well as for linguists who might be interested in the language," he said.

De Reuse spent much of the summer and fall in Eagle Village working with elders to document the vanishing language.

Conan Goebel, First Chief of Eagle Village, said they have been trying for several years to obtain funding for such a project.

"So we got lucky with the university contacting us and asking if Willem could come here and do this," he said.

Ruth Ridley welcomed the opportunity to help De Reuse document the language. She previously worked with the ANLC in the 1980s to produce a book of stories in Han.

"They call me the youngest fluent speaker of our language. And I'm 56, so you can see it needs help," she said.

Ridley, with her older sisters Ethel Beck and Bertha Ulvi, grew up speaking Han as their first language.

According to Beck, the children of the Paul family had to learn Han so they could communicate with their grandmother, who didn't speak English.

Michael Krauss, former director of the ANLC who initiated the project now being funded by the statewide University of Alaska system, attributes much of the success of the project to the three sisters.

"The Paul family especially understands the stakes and are actively contributing everything they can," he said.

De Reuse is also working on a dictionary of Apache, one of the languages of the Southwest that is related to Northern Athabaskan languages such as Han and Gwich'in.

Han, long considered a dialect of Gwich'in, has more recently been recognized as a separate language. The languages are enough alike, however, that De Reuse has been using words from a Gwich'in dictionary to help Eagle elders recall similar-sounding words in their own language.

A list of Han nouns was compiled by linguist John Ritter of the Yukon Native Language Center in Whitehorse, Canada, in 1980, so De Reuse is concentrating on words for actions such as throwing, hitting and walking.

De Reuse explained that many of the verbs are "pretty precise terms" that describe a very specific action. For example, there is a particular word meaning to "throw a solid roundish object like a rock or chunk of bone."

For terms describing traditional male activities such as hunting and fishing, De Reuse turned to Tim Malcolm, who at age 69 is the oldest fluent speaker of Han in Eagle Village.

Like other Alaska Natives over the past century, the children of the Paul and Malcolm families were discouraged from speaking their language once they entered school. De Reuse attributes much of the loss of the Han's language to formal education, but, he said, Eagle Village's relative isolation protected their culture from outside influence to some extent.

The Han language fared less well in the Canadian village of Moosehide because of its proximity to Dawson, just two miles upriver.

De Reuse plans to spend time in Dawson next summer working with the two remaining speakers of Han, who are both more than 70 years old. He will also return to Eagle to continue his work there, which includes recording not only words and phrases, but also stories told in Han.

Although the dictionary won't be completed for several years, Eagle Village is already reaping the benefits of the project. Joanne Beck, tribal administrator, said that since working with De Reuse, "The elders have started speaking our language more and remembering stories that were passed on to them. It's exciting."

The next step in preserving the language is to develop a curriculum so that the language can be taught in the school and the community.

Ethel Beck said, "I'd love to teach the language to anyone who wants to learn it, adults or children."

First Chief Goebel, 25, would like to learn Han himself, but he recognizes it will be of limited value. "You can't go down to the Lower 48 and use it, like Spanish. You've got to do it for yourself, to keep it alive."

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