Naqenaga Nuch’eghetdneq — in Dena’ina, it means “We take back our language.”
For three years now, the Kenai Peninsula College has hosted an event with this name as part of their celebration of Alaska Native and Native American Heritage Month. During Naqenaga Nuch’eghetdneq, speakers of the Dena’ina, Ahtna and Yupik languages gather together to share what they know of their languages and pass down their knowledge to future generations.
“This is how we’re going to own our own languages,” Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, KPC rural and Native student services coordinator, said on the Friday before the event. “I can’t express how wonderful of an experience it is.”
This year, the event held special significance for those who participated because of the recent loss of longtime KPC professor and indigenous rights advocate Dr. Alan Boraas, who died last Monday from a stroke at Providence Hospital in Anchorage.
Shaginoff-Stuart said that Boraas was an essential part of starting the annual language gathering in the first place, so the first half of the gathering consisted of a ceremony to honor his passing and recognize his impact.
The event began in one of the classrooms of the Steffy Building with a prayer, spoken in Dena’ina by instructor Helen Dick, who gave thanks for the day’s weather and blessed everyone in attendance. Then, members of KPC’s student dance group performed a couple of traditional Yupik dances. The group is called Kahtnu Yurartet, which translates to “Kenai River Dancers.”
The first word — Kahtnu — is Dena’ina, while Yurartet is Yupik. Dancer Trish Tuluk explained that she and other members of the group share a Yupik heritage but are currently living and studying on Dena’ina land, so they wanted to recognize both cultures with the name.
After the dances and introductions from the instructors in the three Alaska Native languages represented Saturday, the group walked outside and gathered around a fire pit facing the Kenai River for a ceremony to remember Dr. Boraas.
Tyonek Elder Max Chickalusion led the ceremony by speaking on Boraas’ impact on his own life.
“His dreams carry on through us,” Chickalusion said. “His vision carries on through us.”
Chickalusion said he had known Boraas for more than 40 years, and for much of that time they were close friends. Chickalusion recalled the first time he met Boraas, when the professor came to visit Chickalusion’s uncle, Peter Kalifornsky.
“They sat and talked for hours and I was just in awe listening to the stories they shared,” Chickalusion said. “And that’s how Alan was. You’d stop in for a 10-minute conversation with him and end up talking for two or three hours.”
Those who were around the fire then took turns sharing their memories of Dr. Boraas before tossing a bit of sage into the flames — a symbol of cleansing and a spiritual sendoff for the beloved professor.
The Kahtnu Yurartet then performed two more dances, one to bless the land and another about ice skating.
To end the ceremony, Yupik speaker Donita Slawson shared a song that she had written for Dr. Boraas, the chorus of which was sung by everyone in the circle.
After the ceremony, the group headed back inside and formed language circles for the rest of the day, where instructors taught those in their circles any words or phrases they wanted to learn.