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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Last Native Speaker

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on the extinction of a native language, and the loss of its unique perspective on the natural world.


CURWOOD: Alaska's Kenai Peninsula witnessed an extinction of sorts this past summer. Not of a fish or insect, but of a piece of its ancient, unique human culture. Commentator Nancy Lord has some thoughts.

LORD: Peter Kalifornsky died last June, just as the early King salmon were running in the rivers, the purple lupine bursting to bloom. The last speaker of the language native to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula was lost to lung cancer at the age of 81. Just as our people have dozens of ways of identifying and describing what we English speakers can only call snow, the Denina Athabaskans who lived along Cook Inlet in south central Alaska developed a language to match their homeland. In a culture where getting to the right place, finding food, and getting home again were matters of survival, the people needed words that were precise and recognized the relationships between places, events and members of the shared community. That community, in Denina culture, included animals and land, as well as humans. Like so many other Native Americans, the Denina were forbidden under the American school policy of forced assimilation to speak anything but English. Kalifornsky, who spend five years in school, recalled being beaten with a stick for using his language. But he also spent many of his early years with elders who trained him, he said, in the real old-time Denina way. In his last two decades, after a life of subsistence hunting and trapping and wage work, Kalifornsky became a self-taught writer and scholar, dedicated to saving and sharing some part of his culture. One day Kalifornsky took a drive to the mountains and spoke of what he saw there. These words that match the landscape translate awkwardly into "ridge-broken-up-into-knolls-almost-bare; ridge- with-knolls- pointing- up; ridge-sloping-to-a-point; pointed-up-mountain; sloping- mountain," and so on. He recorded another series of words for how trees grow: "they-grow-on-upper-mountain-slope; they- grow-up-the-mountain-in-strips; they-grow-up-the-mountainsides; they-grow-through-the-pass." Imagine these words in your vocabulary, and then imagine how their use would affect what you see, the intimacy with which you would know your surroundings and your place in them. There's a poetry too to the Denina language, a level of metaphor we miss in our English substitutes. The landmark I call Sixty-Foot Rock the Denina knew as Soles-of-Feet-Waving. Across the inlet Mount Redoubt was The-One-with-Creased-Forehead. Other place names told the Denina what they needed to know for their provisioning and safety: Rocks-Are-There-Place, Down-Feathers-Lake, Blueberry-Place, Where-Boats-Get-Snagged. No-Good-Lake didn't freeze solidly and was therefore dangerous to cross in winter. Just yesterday a friend told me that his three-year-old daughter uses the Denina word for raven - hoh-koi-nee . It makes sense to her, this white child, because it sounds like the raven's own speech. A particular language belongs no less to a place than a particular species of bird. Its extinction is a serious loss, not only to the people who inhabit that place, but to the necessary diversity of the world. Kalifornsky's life and work taught us all something about how to see, to listen, to respect what belongs.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord lives and writes in Homer, Alaska.



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