Alaska Native culture

Big Families – Those Were the Days

Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

My parents had six kids, five together and one adopted. Al Jr., Tanya and I were all one year apart. Tanya was adopted a year before Al came along. We were the middle kids with an older sister, Sheri, and younger brothers, Solomon and Johnnie. We moved a lot due to my dad’s work, like Huslia, Hughes, Bettles/Evansville, Nome, Fort Yukon, Galena and Nenana. We might have lived in a lot of different places, but my siblings were a constant presence in my life.

My parents had their hands (and house) full during those years. Most people didn’t have running water in Huslia in my early years. We had those galvanized steel tubs. My parents had an oblong shaped tub, and Al, Tonz and I took a bath at the same time. We were pretty nuisance. One day while mom was out, I decided to cut my bangs. Oh, but I didn’t stop there. I had to cut Al and Tonz’ bangs too! I’m not sure if my mom has a picture of us during that time. I think I have a few with my really short bangs though. We were 4-5-6 years old at the time. Ha ha! Our nicknames were, Little Al, Tonz and Angie.

We probably drove my mom a little crazy. She was a stay-at-home mom. As teenagers we stayed up late, and she would tell us in a stern voice, “Go to bed and go to sleep.” We even recorded it one time. We still giggled for about half an hour after she would tell us.

"Yatlin Family Circus" is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska
“Yatlin Family Circus” is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska

My dad was a dog musher, so in addition to six kids, we also had to take care of 10-30 dogs over the years. Nowadays, my parents are retired and living a more quite life. They only have a couple dogs at a time. My sister and her daughter live in Huslia too. The rest of us are spread out around Alaska.

Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

It wasn’t an easy life growing up with such a big family, but it was a blessing. I’m thankful for all of my siblings and for my extended family. One of my aunts had 14 children. I always thought I would have a big family of my own, but my husband and I are content with two. I cherish the memories of my childhood growing up in a large family.

Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan) Lesson:

  • Sodaa – older sister
  • Sidaadze – younger sister
  • Sooghaa – older brother
  • Seketl’e – younger brother
Alaska Native culture

Learning Denaakk’e – Koyukon Athabascan

Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk'e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk’e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I attended the Denaakk’e Immersion class held this month in Anchorage. I was not sure exactly what to expect and I thought I would be overwhelmed quickly. I can tell you that I am not overwhelmed. The instructors were patient and check in with everyone to see how we were doing. If we got overwhelmed, we took a break or did a fun activity.

My daughter, Ermelina, and I learned together. She is picking it up quickly and has helped me along the way. The class was open to all ages and ranges of language knowledge. It was great to interact with the elders and to learn along with the kids.

Learning the words is the biggest challenge for Erma. She enjoys the asking and answering a question activity. This is the “Where are your keys?” teaching method.

Each day, we reviewed the agenda and signed up to lead activities. Language Instructor Susan “K’etsoo” Paskvan encouraged participants to take ownership of the agenda and activities. We can use the same techniques to hold language nights later on. A part of learning the language is to be able to practice. The instructors are not always going to be there, and we need to pass it on.

Teach what you want to learn. -Carter Rodriquez

I was impressed with the structure of the class and the thought they put into the teaching methods. In addition to the the “Where are your keys?” teaching method, they also used storytelling to teach us some new verbs and nouns. The story is called, Tobaan Estuh. Participants performed the story in a play on the last day.

We also went for walks around the Alaska Native Heritage Center and asked questions and learned words. We had to ask the questions in Denaakk’e. This is a great method to remember words. We also had a lot of repetition with each exercise. Once you ‘got it’, you were encouraged to teach others.

Another key method was learning American Sign Language. Signing helped us remember the words. It also helped us to stay immersed in Denaakk’e. We tried to speak Denaakk’e as much as we could.

We played fun games with Denaakk’e words mixed in. Like the Simon Says game, we played Setsoo Says (Grandma Says). We also learned some Denaakk’e songs. It was great to hear the stories behind the songs. Esther “Nedosdegheełno” McCarty explained why songs are made and where they come from.

Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk'e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk’e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I enjoyed learning and practicing how to introduce yourself in Denaakk’e. I wrote my Alaska Native introduction on my “About” page. Someday, I would like to learn how to do the same thing in Denaak’e. The cool thing is that some participants learned they were related.

I’m filled up with a newfound knowledge and respect for the Denaakk’e. it was great to connect with people who are also interested in learning the language. It’s a lifelong challenge, but I have some tools to help me along the way.

Ana basee’ to Eliza Jones, Esther McCarty, Susan Paskvan, Dewey Hoffman and Dawn Dinwoodie! A big thanks to the Alaska Native Heritage Center for hosting and organizing the class. Thank you to Doyon, Limited for sponsoring the program!

Alaska Native culture

Learning the Athabascan Language

I’ve been working with my daughters to learn the Koyukon Athabascan. I started out by creating Vine videos to record words and sharing them on Twitter (@ayatlin). I recently migrated to Instagram because of flexibility and editing function. I’ve also uploaded the videos to Facebook. My friend, Mary Deming Barber, recently wrote about how I’ve been using Vine to teach Athabascan on her blog

Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978
Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978

I know a lot of words in Koyukon Athabascan, but I do not speak it or know how to spell it. I have been learning as I go. My aunt Irene Henry of Allakaket recently sent me some worksheets with Koyukon words for us to use. I have also downloaded the Koyukon Junior Dictionary written by Athabascan linguist, Eliza Jones of Koyukuk, Alaska.

I recently learned the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) is will hold two Athabascan language learning opportunities this summer:

  1. Nee’eeneegn’ Upper Tanana Athabascan July 15-20 at Northway’s culture camp which is upriver from the village during an overnight camp setting.
  2. Denaakk’e Koyukon Athabascan August 4-9 in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The ANHC would like to bring together as many interested Upper Tanana and Koyukon Athabascan language learners of all ages with hands-on learning activities, singing, eating and sharing stories. ANHC Development Manager Dewey Hoffman says, “Anyone can learn our language and it’s important to put it back into the air where it belongs!” 

Dene Languages. Map courtesy of the ANHC.
Dene Languages. Map courtesy of the ANHC.

I am planning to attend the one in Anchorage. The registration costs, meals and learning materials are free due to sponsorship from Doyon, Limited, which launched an Athabascan Language Revitalization initiative in 2012 to promote the Native languages within the Doyon region. Travel and lodging are not provided. Ruth Johnny of Northway and Beaver Creek and Cheryl Silas of Northway and Fairbanks will be the instructors for Upper Tanana week in Northway. K’etsoo Susan Paskvan of Koyukuk and Fairbanks and NedosdeghaaLno Esther McCarty of Hughes and Ruby will instruct the Koyukon Athabascan language week in Anchorage.

Esther McCarty teaches the Koyukon Athabascan language and songs. For years, people in the Yukon/Koyukuk area ask her to make Koyukon Athabascan songs for memorial potlatches.

“Most of them don’t speak our language but it is very important for these individuals that they sing for their loved ones. I teach them by a number of different methods. The end result is that they really make an effort to pronounce their words and make a song and end up really strong and proud that they’ve done it.  It’s a part of us as Koyukon Athabascans that we sing if that is what is in our hearts. That is part of the healing process of losing a loved one. This is only one reason that we need to learn how to speak our language. It is part of what makes us whole spiritually. Even if a person learns to speak only a few words and understand what he or she is saying that is a great accomplishment for a Koyukon Athabascan who doesn’t know how to speak and would like to learn.” – Esther McCarty

I recorded Esther in 2008 when she did a blessing for a special event in Ruby, Alaska.

Susan Paskvan writes the Athabascan Word of the Week column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The words for June 22, 2013 were sołtaanh nezoonh (a good woman) and hunek zoo’ (a good story) in dedication the Mary Beth Smetzer who retired from the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. I love how Susan blends stories and background information into teaching the languages. Susan is the daughter of Eliza Jones.

Nenena Summer Fish Camp – Menhti Kenaga’ Immersion
Susan Paskvan shared the following information about Menhti Kenaga’, the language of Minto and Nenana. Students at the Nenana Summer Fish Camp are learning Menhti Kenaga’ through immersion methods, taught by Susie Charlie, Vernell Titus, and Susan Paskvan.

Here are some of the phrases they are learning.

  • Setsoo Jennie Irwin be’oozra’. My grandmother is Jennie Irwin.
  • Setseya Jack Irwin dideyoh. My grandfather was Jack Irwin.
  • En’a _____ be’oozra’. My mom’s name is ____.
  • Ta’a _____ be’oozra’. My dad’s name is ____.
  • __________ se’oozra’. My name is ______.

After the 1.5 hour session students, were allowed to ask questions and make comments in English. They asked, “who spoke this language?” and commented “my grandma said she was punished for speaking our language”. Setsoo Susie Charlie told them that this was the language of our people. Through language they are learning about their grandparents and that is important for them to know.


I am grateful to have this opportunity to learn and am excited to be able to do so with my children. I’m pretty sure I’m making mistakes as I’m saying the words. I hope to learn how to correctly pronounce the words and phrases during the language week. I would love to be able to understand Elders who speak in Koyukon Athabascan, and perhaps hold a conversation with them. Language is important to pass on the culture and traditions.