John E. Smelcer

Poems from a Vanishing Language

AS THE SON of an Alaska Native father and a part-Cherokee mother, I have had influences in my life that rarely touch the fabric of non-Indian lives. Although Alaska is certainly not as television oftentimes portrays it — either in the rather surreal Northern Exposure or in adaptations of Jack London novels — it is nevertheless a great and diverse land of extremes, of millions of lakes and hundreds of rivers, of the highest mountains in North America as well as the coldest places, of vast and dangerous oceans and icy seas. It is a place where moose and caribou outnumber the population of humans.

This is the land of my heritage. My father is a half-blood Athabaskan Indian. His mother is the last in our family lineage of pure blood Indians. At around eighty years old she is also one of only about ninety surviving speakers of our language — Ahtna. Ahtna (distantly related to Navajo) is one of thirteen dialects within the Athabaskan language group. In fact, about 5% of our nouns are loan words recognizable in these related languages, even in Navajo thousands of miles to the south.

Virtually all of the remaining speakers of our language are elders. Very few young people speak it. Several years ago, I myself began to take a keen interest in our Ahtna way of speaking, realizing all too clearly how fragile and precarious our language and traditions were and continue to be. For example, I noted through research how nearly one-third of our speakers died each decade. Surely our language would not survive the next twenty years if more members of the younger generation did not take an active interest in learning and preserving Ahtna. With this in mind, and having two Indian grandmothers to teach me, I began to learn this very beautiful and rare tongue.

Then, within the past two or three years, I began to experiment with writing poetry in Ahtna. It is quite challenging. As a writer, the process for me is backwards. Usually in English I have an idea of what I want to write about and then proceed to write about it, my language choices seemingly unlimited, given the gigantic vocabulary (hundreds of thousands of words) of what is in fact my mother tongue — English. But because the other language of my heritage is so limited in terms of the number of words (perhaps only a thousand are known) I must first start with the words and let them determine my poem’s direction. What will they let me say?

The process goes something like this. I have a notecard and notebook collection of terms, variations, and phrases. I clear an area on my living room floor and lay out the notecards in rows of relatedness (place names, other proper nouns, common nouns, verbs, etc.) and then start to isolate noun and verb phrases that might go together. Then I look for proper nouns and place names to complement the phrases. After a while, a kind of linguistic string begins to take shape, and finally I lay all the cards out in sentence order (remember sentence structure exercises from high school?) to start to piece together lines. Meanwhile, throughout the process, one side of the notecard has been in Ahtna, and the other side has been the English translation. It’s a slow and sometimes tedious technique, especially with trying to follow this linguistic string simultaneously in both of the languages, but it is truly a process of discovery. I generally have no idea of what I will write before I begin.

So, am I the translator of my own poetry, or am I writing my poems in two languages simultaneously? Probably both. I will say, though, that at times I have had to stray from the literal, even if both versions did arise in my own mind. For example, in my poem “Son Tsaan” (“Falling Star”), the literal translation of the phrase “Son Tsaan” would be “star shit.” Quite simply, it appeared to my ancestors that a shooting star was the night sky excreting upon the earth! Somehow, though, in the English version, to translate the phrase in a way that would retain the original metaphor would skew the poem as a whole away from its linguistic and dramatic string. I had to make this single word choice be further away from the original in order for the two poems themselves to be closer.

I am currently the only member of our tribe writing poetry in our language (let alone translating it into English). While I mentioned that there are a handful of Native speakers of Ahtna, only one or two can even recognize it in written form. In fact, there was no written form whatsoever until after university linguist James Kari, in collaboration with dozens of tribal elders, established an orthographic structure for Ahtna in the early 1980s. In the same way, although there is a rich heritage of Ahtna traditional stories — all with powerful poetic elements — my poems are the first writings in the language which would fit the European-derived classification of “poetry.”

As for the Ahtna pronunciation, it would take a 25-50 page linguistic discussion to even begin to provide a pronunciation guide. (In fact, the dictionary to our language devotes forty-seven pages to explaining our pronunciation and orthographic system and is still somewhat incomplete, even inaccurate, in many instances.) What could I teach in a few paragraphs or even a few pages? After studying our language for years, I barely have a grasp of pronunciation. True, there are some correlations to Standard English orthography, but many of our sounds are distinctly unique from English as are the patterns between spelling and pronunciation. For example, the word in Ahtna for “hammer” is “c’tsiiti'” (ka-chit-e). Who would imagine c’ = ka and ts = ch?

This year my tribe appointed me as the Executive Director of our Indian Heritage Foundation. Now, as the elected “culture bearer,” it is my job and life duty to document and preserve our traditions and language. With the guidance of the village elders, my work includes oral history projects, dictionary revision, documentary film-making, and even the creation of language books for our children. I also see my poetry in Ahtna as another starting point-a place from which others may one day follow, keeping the word alive in a vanishing language that— despite our great efforts — still remains at the brink of extinction.

Anchorage, Alaska, August 7, 1996