Friday, June 09, 2006

Flag pledge -- in Dena'ina

Here's an interesting angle on the move for "English only" laws that accompany the current round of hysteria over immigration. It comes from an anthropologist's recollection of leading the Pledge of Allegiance with a Dena'ina Athabascan elder named Peter Kalifornsky at a school on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

I'll let the anthropologist, Alan Boraas of Kenai Peninsula College, tell the story as he wrote it up for The Anchorage Daily News several years later:
Two hundred grade schoolers make a lot of noise even when being shushed by their teachers, and I was a little ambivalent when we stepped to the microphone. I cleared my throat, Peter cleared his, and we began:

"Dek'nesh'uh bet'uhdi_t'ayich"' Peter read. "I pledge allegiance" I repeated. "Naq'ach' k'iniyich'," "to the flag," "ts'e_q'i k'i_anich'ina," "of the United States of America."

As we read, the children became curiously silent. Johnny stopped pulling Sally's pigtails, Betty and Amy stopped giggling, and Ricky, off in his own space, suddenly was captivated. As one, they stared intently at the frail old man speaking a strange language they didn't understand. They were not confused, but awed. Even the school district administrators paid attention.

The children seemed to sense that this was the language of their place. An ancient language with ancient roots. Though they came from many backgrounds, subconsciously they seemed to want to connect to those roots. After the program was over I stood to the side talking with some acquaintances, and I happened to look over toward Peter. Forty or so kids had gathered around him. They were quiet and respectful with a look not so much of admiration, but of wonder. It was as though there was something missing in their lives that this mysterious old man and his ancient language could satisfy. They would draw near and reach out their hand, and he would reach out his and touch them. Then they would drift away and others would press to the front for a chance to touch the hand of a man who held the secret to their connection to their place.
Now here's the kicker. Again, I'll quote Boraas:
In one of the supreme ironies of our time, reading the Pledge of Allegiance in a Native language could be be illegal today. With the passage of Alaska's English-only law, English is the only language that can be used in government functions.
There's another level of irony here, too. Kalifornsky was descended from a Dena'ina Athabascan man who converted to Christianity in the mid-1800s when he worked at a Russian outpost in California. (Hence the name.) When Alaska was a Russian colony, the Russian Orthodox Church promoted the use of Native languages and it was not uncommon for people to be bilingual, even trilingual. After the U.S. took over, the new territorial government brought in Protestant missionaries and English-only schools like those in the "lower 48." Now, a hundred years later, the Native languages are dying out. Kalifornsky, who died in 1993, devoted his last years to developing a written Dena'ina language and writing down many of the old Athabascan stories in their Native language.