The earliest known documentation of Dena’ina consists of a wordlist collected by William Anderson in 1778 during Captain Cook’s voyage. This was followed by several more wordlists collected in the 19th century by Davydov (1803), Lisianski (1804), Rezanov (1805), Wrangell (1835), Doroschin (1848), Schiefner (1874) and Staffeief and Petroff (1886). Most of the work of this time took place in the Kenai Peninsula. Cornelius Osgood’s The Ethnography of the Dena’ina (1937) was a major antropological investigation Dena’ina culture, and contains a comparative list of vocabulary from six Dena’ina villages on various topics, including kinship terms, plants, animals, clothing, weapons, and social organization.
Linguistic documentation began in earnest in the 1970s by Joan Tenenbaum and James Kari. Tenenbaum lived in the Dena’ina village of Nondalton from 1973 to 1975, and her 1978 Columbia University dissertation is a descriptive grammar of the Dena’ina spoken there. While the dissertation deals only with the morphology and semantics of verbs, it remains today the most complete linguistic analysis of the language. Tenenbaum also published four booklets of Dena’ina Sukdu’a, or traditional stories, in 1976, which were republished in 1984 in an illustrated collection. Kari’s work in the 1970s resulted in a vast corpus, much of which is housed at the Alaska Native Language Archive in Fairbanks. He collected over 2600 pages of fieldnotes in 27 notebooks. He also amassed a paper slip file of over 7500 lexical entries, which was abandoned in favor of digital methods in the 1980s. The slip file, which contains numerous entries donated by Tenenbaum, and its digital follow-up has resulted in an extensive lexical database that is awaiting editing and publication.
Community efforts to teach the language were strong in the 1970s, with regular bilingual workshops and classes. Speakers Peter Kalifornsky and Albert Wassillie became accomplished writers of Dena’ina. Kalifornsky is among the most prolific of Alaska Native authors, and his original compositions include short stories, poems, songs, and personal anecdotes, as well as teaching materials. Wassillie is the author of a number of collections of traditional stories, as well as the Dena’ina Junior Dictionary.
Language work slowed considerably in the late twentieth century, but the current century has seen renewed interest in Dena’ina language work. Students in Dena’ina language classes taught by Alan Boraas and Donita Peter are becoming increasingly accomplished writers. Renewed efforts to publish multimedia documentation include Olga Müller’s recently compiled phrase book with Alec Balluta and Gladys Evanoff, and a book of stories by Walter Johnson, edited by James Kari. Kari has also compiled several multimedia language lessons and key words.
Descriptive linguistic work also continues. Olga Lovick’s University of Cologne Ph.D. dissertation (2005) documents aspects of the Dena’ina pronoun system. James Kari’s Dena’ina Topical Dictionary, to be published in early 2006, is a major contribution to Dena’ina lexical documentation.
Community efforts to learn the language were strong in the 1970s, with regular bilingual workshops and classes. Speakers Peter Kalifornsky and Albert Wassillie learned the Dena’ina practical orthography and wrote down many traditional stories and language lessons. Kalifornsky’s stories, including some of his own invention, were later published in A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’i Sukdu (1991) in Dena’ina with English translation. Wassillie published a number of children’s books and worked with Dr. Kari on Dena’ina Qenaga Duch’duldih: Dena’ina Athabaskan Junior Dictionary.
The first decade of the 21st century has seen a surge of interest in Dena’ina language revitalization in academic circles and the community alike. To learn about these exciting efforts, please see the Language Revitalization page.
Compiled by Andrea Berez & Gary Holton, Oct 2005.