Strengthening Native American Communities & Economies
Ya Ne Dah Ah School: A Comprehensive Approach to Language Revitalization
By Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D., First Nations Communications Officer
Alaska is home to 229 federally-recognized tribes. Chickaloon Native Village (CNV) is the first and only federally-recognized tribe in Alaska to own and operate its own full-time, year-round school. It is so unique that the Ya Ne Dah Ah School was awarded High Honors from Honoring Nations Harvard University in 2002.
Lessons began in 1992, with clan grandmother Katie Wade teaching Ahtna language and cultural classes informally. By 1993, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (CVTC), the governing body of CNV, formally established the Ya Ne Dah Ah or "Ancient Teachings" School to teach, preserve and rejuvenate Ahtna Athabascan culture, language, history and traditions. “My grandmother, Katie Wade, our clan grandmother, was one of our ¬¬community’s last fluent Ahtna language speakers. When she passed away in 2009, we had to figure out how to continue to preserve and perpetuate the language going forward,” said Health, Education and Social Services Division Director and CVTC Member Lisa Wade.
In 2009-2012, CNV received a grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) to learn how to teach language lessons based on James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) method. TPR is a comprehensive approach to language teaching that includes observing, practicing, speaking and, finally, writing the language.
Ahtna language teachers have modified their language curriculum to the TPR method. Ya Ne Dah Ah School, students watch their language instructor say the Ahtna words while picking berries, and then pick berries themselves while also learning the corresponding berry language. Once students get back to the classroom, they practice speaking and may even write about berry picking. TPR has been proven to be an effective way to learn the Ahtna language.
“While some of our Ya Ne Dah Ah School teachers speak the language, they are not first-language speakers. They learned the language from our elders,” says Wade. “We are wrestling with the fact that our elders our passing. Our language is passed down orally, and we didn’t have any books to continue teaching the language. Without the language being written down and taught in a very methodical and culturally meaningful way, we risked losing it.”
In 2015, CNV received another three-year ANA Language Grant to develop a beginning Ahtna language curriculum and teach beginning Ahtna language classes. It was a time-intensive endeavor to create this curriculum as the staff had to rely on the mentorship of Ahtna language speakers like Jeannie Maxim and Markle Pete who lived more than 120 miles from the school. There was limited time to fully pilot the curriculum.
As a result, CNV applied for a First Nations Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII) grant to pilot a full-year of their curriculum from start to finish, and hire, train and certify an Ahtna language instructor.
In 2018, CNV was also awarded another three-year ANA Language Grant to develop an advanced language curriculum. “The two projects are running concurrently and supporting each other, which will help sustain the Ahtna language long term,” said Wade.
For Wade, the Ya Ne Dah Ah School is a very personal journey. Not only has her 10-year-old daughter been attending the school for the past five years, but she also says, “As a child, I never had the opportunity to learn the language of my ancestors. Although my grandmother spoke the language fluently, she did not pass the language on to her children or grandchildren because of forced assimilation and racism. It wasn’t safe for her to do so. For me and my family, this has been a real healing journey.”
The Ya Ne Dah Ah School has not only been a healing journey for the Wade family, it has also helped strengthen and reinvigorate the rest of the community. “A number of people have given up their own time and resources to support the school,” says Wade. “CVTC members heavily invest in our school every year. CVTC provides us with a physical space as well as heat, electricity and other utilities to keep our school going. They have made us a priority because without the school, without our language, who are we?”
In addition to refining their curriculum to better support their students, CNV will also use the grant funding to launch a teacher certification program that will enable language instructors to teach the Ahtna language at both the high school and college levels. Recently, CNV partnered with the University of Alaska to co-teach and participate in a college-level Ahtna course taught by tribal citizen Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart.
“We are trying to revitalize something that we know is vitally important to the survival of our families and communities,” says Wade. “The funding and support we receive gives us hope for the future of our children.”
About the Author
Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D. (Sicangu Lakota) returned to First Nations in 2018 as Communication Officer. She is responsible for helping write and edit First Nations' print and web materials as well as handling other duties.
Sarah is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado, where she teaches course on American Indian literature and film. She is the Executive Dirctor of the Oak Lake Writers Society, a tribal writing group for Dakota, Lakota and Nakota writers, and is currently revising her dissertation on the Dakota literary tradition into a book manuscript.