Skip to main content Link Menu Expand (external link) Copy Copied


Dena’ina Writers and Speakers

The Dena'ina literary tradition is embodied in the work of a number of important writers and speakers. Just as the Greek myths survive due to the efforts of those who first wrote them down, the Dena'ina literature survives today because of the efforts of writers and speakers who recorded or wrote down these stories. This page contains highlights of the work of some important Dena'ina writers and speakers.

Mike Alex was the traditional chief of Eklutna, a position that was passed down to him by his father, Eklutna Alex. He worked closely with the University of Alaska, writing short stories and identifying place names. He also served as a bilingual teacher in Lime Village, Nondalton, Tyonek and Anchorage.

Fitka Balashoff from Seldovia was the primary source for the Seldovia dialect of Dena'ina in the vocabulary recorded by anthropologist Cornelius Osgood in 1931 and 1932.

Andrew Balluta (1930-2011) worked for many years as a park ranger in Lake Clark National Park, and he co-authored Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: The People of Nondalton with Linda J. Elanna. (download) This book is an ethnography and ethnohistory of the inland Dena’ina. In his later he was a major supporter of Dena'ina language work, working to record details of technical aspects of Dena'ina culture. His 2008 book, Shtutda'ina Da'a Shel Qudel (My Forefathers are Still Walking with Me: Verbal Essays on Qizhjeh and Tsaynen Dena'ina Traditions) is a collection of 22 narratives describing Dena'ina beliefs and values; travel and places; and environment, resources, and technology.

Nicholia "Harry" Balluta has taught Dena'ina language in Nondalton since the 1950s. He still teaches with his daughter Liz Balluta. Harry is a lay reader and song leader in the Orthodox Church.

Pete Bobby, Vonga Bobby, Nora Alexie, Emma Alexie, Nick Alexie, Katherine Bobby and Helen Dick of Lime Village all contributed to a 1978 book called K’qizaghetnu Ht’ana, edited by James Kari. This book is a collection of short stories and memories about daily life in the Lime Village area.

Max and Nellie Chickalusion wrote Tubughna Ełnena: The Tyonek People’s Country. This is a book about places in the Tyonek area, like Bunka Lake, Chuqan Baydli Bena, Chuitt River, Mt. Spurr, and Kustatan. The Chickalusions also created a large amount of materials for teaching Dena'ina in the classroom.

The work of some talented storytellers from Tyonek and Iliamna Lake appear in Q’udi Heyi Niłch’diluyi Sukdu’a/This Year’s Collected Stories (TI972K1980b). These include Max and Nellie Chickalusion, Sergei Californsky, Pete Constantine, Shem Pete, Sava Stepan, Zenia Kolyaha and Vera Roehl. The book is a collection of stories told at language workshops between 1975 and 1980. Max Chickalusion tells a story about beaver hunting, Shem Pete tells about beluga hunting, Nellie Chickalusion talks about soaking dry fish, Sergei Californsky talks about building a house.

Mary Hobson, originally from the Upper Stony River, is the widow of Steve Hobson, Sr., and resides in Nondalton. Mary is an expert in Dena'ina, and has been a teacher at the Dena'ina Language Institute since 2003.

Walter Johnson was born in 1922, at Kaskanak Creek on the Kvichak River flats and grew up in Old Iliamna when it was still a sizeable community. He and his wife Annie are well known throughout Iliamna Lake and the Homer area, where they have lived since 1978. Walter has many talents as an outdoorsman, carpenter, fisherman, and musician. He is an expert on the Iliamna dialect of the Dena’ina language, and in their home Walter and Annie maintain the Dena’ina language. Whether speaking his native language or English, Walter has an engaging style. He recalls Dena’ina words and phrases, coins amusing words, and talks on the telephone with his friends in the Dena’ina community. His latest contribution to Dena’ina language is his book Sukdu Neł Nuhtghelnek: I’ll Tell You a Story: Stories I Recall From Growing Up on Iliamna Lake.

Peter Kalifornsky was born in 1911 at Unhghenesditnu (‘farthest creek over’), or Kalifornsky Village, on the Cook Inlet bluff four miles north of the Kasilof River mouth. Peter’s interest in Dena’ina storytelling began by listening to another storyteller named Fedore Sasha (1880-1945). By 1974 he was immersed in his writing projects. He wrote down the sukdu, or traditional stories, as he remembered them. He also began teaching language classes, first at Wildwood and through Kenaitze Indian Tribe, and later at Kenai Peninsula College. Peter published several books in his lifetime. Some of these are Ch’enlahi Sukdu/The Gambling Story, and Kahtnuht’ana Qenaga/The Kenai People’s Language. His most celebrated book is A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’i Sukdu, a collection of Peter’s memoirs, plus both traditional stories and those of his own invention.

Ruth Koktelash of Nondalton was an expert craftswoman who makes beautiful caribou skin clothing. Her contributions to Dena'ina language include many recordings and a videotape of the process of making fermented fish.

Katherine Nicolie was born in 1914 in Talkeetna. Her parents were Talkeetna Nicolie and Christine Nicolie. According to Shem Pete, Katherine's Dena'ina name was Bałaytninłina, which means "mother of the one who passes beads around." Katherine was an authority on the Kroto-Talkeetna Dena'ina dialect and an expert hunter and fisher. Her memories of traveling with the Kroto Creek Band in the 1920s appears in Shem Pete's Alaska.

Shem Pete was born in 1896 in Yusdishlaq’, near Susitna Station. He was one of the most versatile Dena’ina storytellers and historians of late twentieth-century Alaska. In the 1970s he began working with James Kari and James Fall, recording Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina stories and ethnography. He tape-recorded more than seventy hours of narratives and music. His published stories showcase his rare talent, but only about one-third of Shem’s tape-recorded materials have been transcribed and translated. Some of his knowledge has been published in Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina. The depth of his understanding of Dena’ina territory illustrates his remarkable memory and the strength of Dena’ina culture.

Shem Pete’s son Billy Pete was born at Susitna Station in 1920, the same day as his cousin, Sava Stephan. Billy’s grandmother, with whom he spoke in Dena’ina, taught him many of the traditions, histories, and stories of the Upper Inlet people. His extensive knowledge of Dena’ina culture and oral traditions made him a key expert, a precise translator, and an essential partner to his father Shem in the preservation of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina culture and history.

Alberta Stephan of Eklutna is a historian and lecturer on Dena'ina Culture. She has published several books, including The First Athabascans of Alaska: Strawberries, and several cookbooks.

Fedosia Sacaloff was born in 1921 and passed away in Kenai in 1989. In addition to her contributions to language work which began in 1972 with James Kari, Mrs. Sacaloff was a major contributor to Tanaina Plantlore: Dena'ina K'et'una by Priscilla Russell Kari (1987).

Sava Stephan Sr. (1920-2013) has made many language recordings and has been a major contributor to the Upper Inlet dialect. His Upper Inlet Dena'ina Language Lessons, edited by James Kari, were published in 2005 by the Alaska Native Heritage Center. A biography of of Sava can be found on the Cook Inlet Historical Society website.

Pete Trefon and Antone Evan worked with Joan Tenenbaum on the 1978 book Dena'ina Sukdu'a I-IV. They helped her translate the stories she collected from the residents of Nondalton. Trefon also worked with Tenenbaum to compile Tanaina Placenames.

Albert Wassillie of Nondalton was one of the most prolific writers of the Dena’ina language. He was particularly interested in making written materials to help people learn to speak Dena’ina. His contributions include a Dena’ina Junior Dictionary, a book of traditional stories from Nondalton (TI974W1975a), and a book of Dena’ina riddles, or K’ich’ighi. Wassillie also developed a series of classroom workbooks, designed to teach Dena’ina vocabulary and grammar to children. Some of these are Nda’ihdu? Ent’i/Why? Because, Ndahqugh? Ndahdi?/How Much? How Many?, and Vada Idi? Ndan’i?/Whose? Which One?.

Compiled by Andrea Berez, last update 05 Dec 2005.