Traditional music and language learning in Alaska

Weiser, Vera
Tuttle, Siri
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In 2002, during a summer course in Lower Tanana Athabascan, I sang a dratakh ch’elik song for the first time. I heard these songs sung but never gave myself completely to them as I did not know the meaning or words in these songs. So when I sang this mourning song I knew that I could sing and it sparked something in me to pursue to learn and sing more dratakh ch’elik. I found some songs that had been transcribed. While reading the transcriptions, I would listen to the songs from cd’sthe recordings. I retained what I was reading and realized that I can learn these songs. Songs helped us heal. Songs helped us to remember our loved ones and their characteristics were memorialized in these dratakh ch’elik. Also important words like ch’eghwtsen (love), gholiyo (prosperity), udlataya udlataya (glad occasions) had deep meaning in the culture. These songs give me a sense of peace, a sense of place, a sense of cultural belonging; a connection to our historic Athabaskan world view. This interest in learning these dratakh ch’elik songs gave me the incentive to learn to read and write the language as I wanted to learn my family’s songs to pass on to my sons. So I would ask elders to teach me the words with all their levels of meanings in the songs. I also sought linguistic support for my work with the songs. Minto elders have strongly urged the study of song lyrics and their use in language teaching. They were concerned that meaningful lyrics could be lost as fewer young people learned the songs. They believed that when people learn to sing in their language, they can learn to speak in the language too. Motivation to learn the language is one effect of exposure to songs in cultural context. Singing together can help shy students learn language sounds. Working from simpler lyrics to more complex ones develops understanding of important aspects of the language. In the case of dratakh ch'elik, layers of meaning are uncovered as a student gets better at language. Each word in the lyrics has literal meaning, contextual meaning , cultural meaning, and metaphorical meaning. This is why the elders treasure these lyrics as repositories of cultural and moral knowledge, and why they insist that they be used in education.
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