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Dena'ina elder awarded honorary doctorate for language and culture preservation work

Helen Dick (right) with her granddaughter, Andrea Ivanoff. The two work together on Dena'ina transcriptions everyday.
Sabine Poux
Helen Dick (right) with her granddaughter, Andrea Ivanoff. Dick has spoken Dena'ina since she was a kid and has passed down her knowledge to the generations below her. Today, Dick and Ivanoff meet up daily to work on Dena'ina language transcriptions.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is awarding Dena'ina Elder Helen Dick an honorary Doctor of Education degree this spring for her years of work as an instructor of Dena’ina to language learners of all ages.

On Monday evening, family, friends and tribal members gathered for a potluck at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s educational campus to celebrate the Dena’ina elder.

“When I found out that she was getting this, I was floored,” said Dick’s daughter, Elizabeth Solie of Soldotna.

Solie said her mom has worked her whole life to pass down what she knows.

Jolene Sutherland, left, and Dena’ina elder Helen Dick at a Kenai Peninsula College Dena’ina language class in 2014. Dick is one of the few Dena’ina language speakers around who learned the language as a child.
Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter
Jolene Sutherland, left, and Dena’ina elder Helen Dick at a Kenai Peninsula College Dena’ina language class in 2014.

“Not to get an award, not to get a degree, but to help people,” she said. “So it just means a lot for us because she’s very talented and knowledgeable in her language. And then ‘living Dena’ina’ — life skills and making birch bark baskets.”

Today, Helen Dick is one of just a few living first-language speakers of Dena’ina. She was born in 1945 in Lime Village, in Southwest Alaska.

Friend Jon Ross said Dick learned the language from her family.

“She studied with many many people that were her family members. Her dad, Pete Bobby, and her grandparents,” he said. “She never actually went to one single day of American school. Yet she has all this knowledge from her ancestors.”

Kenaitze Elder Sharon Isaak held up a booklet of photos she had put together for Dick — showing them holding up beads and working together on a moose hide.

Helen Dick (second from left) with her family at Monday's ceremony.
Sabine Poux
Helen Dick (second from left) with her son William, husband Alan, and daughters Anna, Elizabeth and Rachel at Monday's ceremony.

In every picture, Dick is beaming.

“This picture depicts her joy,” Sharon said, pointing to one of Dick holding a moose ear.

Sharon’s son, Joel, started working with Dick a little over 10 years ago, while he was doing undergraduate research to learn to work with moose hides and fish skin. Dick taught him how to work with the parts of the moose, like to use part of the heart to make a bag.

Joel said Dick has an indigenous style of teaching.

“She is willing to teach people if they want to learn, and are actually willing to do the learning,” Joel said. “And similar with the moose hide, the language is the same thing: You have to show up and you have to do the work.”

Today, Joel is passing on the lessons he’s learned from Dick as a linguist with the tribe. He's part of a new generation working on language and culture revitalization efforts — with younger kids, at the new educational building where the ceremony was hosted, and in classes with Kenai Peninsula College, through its Alaska Native studies programs.

Andrea Ivanoff, Dick’s granddaughter, has been part of those efforts, too. She spends time with her grandmother every day, transcribing stories and phrases she tells her in Dena’ina.

They’ve created stories for kids and worked together on an online Dena’ina audio dictionary project

Sabine Poux/KDLL
Helen Dick and Linda Ross at a birch bark basket workshop Dick taught in 2021.

“I think it’s important, since we have the resources and the writing system to do it,” Ivanoff said. “Because nowadays, that’s how a lot of people learn, and different people have different learning styles. And so, to be able to have it written down and have the spelling and make signs and books, and for the children — I think it’s important.”

She said that knowledge skipped a generation, because of the systematic suppression of indigenous language learning in schools. .

“There was a whole generation that kind of lost it, so they just didn’t speak it anymore,” she said. “And now we’re trying to bring it back.”

It’s work that’s touched many Dena’ina language learners — including many of the people in the room Monday.

There wasn’t much time for Dick to sit down during the potluck, with friends and students passing along "congratulations" between each speech. Each time, Dick greeted them with a warm smile and big hug.

During the ceremony, Joel Isaak addressed the crowd.

“If you’ve learned from Helen, or any of the teachers in the room who have been in the room, please stand up,” he said.

This time, it was the audience's turn to stand.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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