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Language Spotlight: Holikachuk

This summer we teamed up with the Doyon Foundation to release five new language learning courses.

Over the next few weeks, we will spotlight each course to share the culture and stories behind these languages, emphasizing the importance of keeping not only these select languages alive but the many thousands of others that are at risk of extinction. Our second language spotlight is on the Athabaskan language of Holikachuk.

In 1962, after decades of life in the village of Holikachuk on the Innoko River, the residents decided to relocate to Grayling on the lower Yukon River. Due to annual spring floods and erosion, the villagers made the decision to change course and find a more sustainable environment. 

Holikachuk was recognized by scholars as a distinct language as early as the 1840s but was only definitively identified in the 1970s. Of about 180 Holikachuk people, only about 5 spoke the language in 2007. Linguist and Professor James Kari compiled a short dictionary of Holikachuk in 1978, but it remains one of the least documented Alaska Native languages. In March 2012, the last living fluent speaker of Holikachuk passed away in Alaska. 

In hopes of restoring the Holikachuk language, we teamed up with Elder’s Mary Deacon and Elizabeth Keating, as well as linguist Giulia Oliverio to create a language learning course that would sustain the language for years to come. 

Mary Deacon is an Elder who lives in Grayling, Alaska with her family. Mary was part of the Holikachuk village’s original move to Grayling when it was still being established. Today, Mary enjoys beading and visiting with other Elders in her community who speak Holikachuk. 

Elizabeth Keating is an Elder who resides in Anchorage, Alaska with her family. She was raised in the village of Holikachuk by her grandparents, Chief, and Mrs. Alexie. She was taught from an early age to respect and practice the role of an Athabascan woman as well as learned the village’s many legends, how to hunt and gather, and most importantly how to speak her native tongue of Holikachuk. At age fourteen, Elizabeth went to school outside the village and learned English. She then went on to earn a BA degree from Western Washington University and an MA in Community Psychology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Elizabeth served as an Executive Director of the Fairbanks Native Association for seven years. She is a recently retired legal rights advocate with over 20 years of service.

Giulia Oliverio is a linguist who works specifically with Athabaskan languages and has been in the field since 1990. In 1996, she received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Kansas. Giulia began studying the Holikachuk language specifically in 2000 while working at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2002 she moved to Grayling, Alaska permanently and married into the community. She now resides in Anchorage with her family. 

It is with the help of Doyon Foundation and these tremendously dedicated individuals that we have been able to create such a groundbreaking course to preserve one of the world's most endangered languages. It is our hope that through persistent hard work and the continued donations and support from our community we will be able to share stories of success like this for more languages.        

If you would like to support the work we are doing to revive endangered languages, donate below and follow us on social media to get updates. 

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