Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi: The Dena'ina Way of Living

Being Dena'ina

Excerpt from: Gunhti Stsukdu'a : Ki Nch'uk'a "Tanaina" Ghayele'
This Is My Story: "Tanaina" No More
-- Aaron Leggett

I was born October 4, 1981, in Anchorage, Alaska, at the old Alaska Native Service Hospital on Third Avenue. My grandmother, Marie (Ondola) Rosenberg, was a full-blooded Dena'ina from Idlughet (Eklutna).

When my grandmother was born, in 1933, the Anchorage area had a population of about 3,000 people. When I was born, the population was about 180,000; today, it is close to 300,000.

The world my grandmother grew up in no longer exists. She grew up fishing with the family at Fire Island and hunting Dall sheep in the Eklutna Mountains. She spoke Dena'ina with her mom, Olga (Alex) Ondola, and her maternal grandfather, Bel K'ighil'ishen (Eklutna Alex). Today Eklutna Lake is a state park, and although the fish camp still exists at Fire Island, the regulations are such that it is no longer feasible for us to fish there. Today, I am the only person in the village who is learning the language, a task made all the more difficult because I never got the chance to speak it with my grandma.

I remember the day I learned that I was Dena'ina as if it were yesterday. It was November 22, 1984, a day or two after half my preschool class dressed up as Indians and the other half dressed up as Pilgrims. We knew we would then make cranberry sauce and put it in little Gerber baby jars. I remember being excited to give my grandma my Gerber jar for the Thanksgiving dinner.

I remember giving it to her and saying, "Grandma, we dressed up as Indians in school." She replied, in her husky voice, "Aaron, you are Indian."

That one sentence would completely redefine who I was. What do you mean, I was an Indian? Indians were something I only saw in Disney's Goofy cartoons or that existed here long before "civilization." They lived in teepees and wore feather bonnets.

As I got a little older, I gradually came to understand what she meant when she said that we were "Indians." She meant, of course, that we were Dena'ina.

As I grew older, I began to struggle with my Native identity. The most obvious reason was the negative stereotype held by some in the dominant culture that all Natives were drunks living on the street. Of course, this is rather mild when compared to the experience of people of my grandmother's and great-grandmother's generation, who would come into Anchorage and see signs hanging in the restaurants, signs like those in the Anchorage Grill that said "No Natives, dogs or Filipinos."

Another reason why I struggled with my identity as an Alaska Native is that I didn't grow up in a rural village. My village was, in fact, Anchorage, my ancestors' homeland. Therefore, I never really had the option of going back to a village to see what life was like.

In addition, there was virtually nowhere in Anchorage I could learn about the "Tanaina Athapaskans." Outside anthropologists, Europeans, referred to us as "Tanaina Athapaskans,"and as a kid it was a bit unsettling because I always knew myself to be Dena'ina Athabascan.

It is hard for me to imagine what the future holds for us as Dena'ina people. Many of the things I could only have dreamed of a few years ago — such as interpretive signage, proper recognition, and a museum exhibition and catalog — are already happening.

Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done to reinvigorate naqenaga (our language). I dream that one day we will have our own museum so that we can continue to tell our story. I'm sure that one day a young Dena'ina person will read this and be amazed that there was a time when we were "invisible people."

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