Translating COVID-19 advice into indigenous languages, sharing culture and safety

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska. (KTVF) As advice comes out of how communities should prepare and protect themselves from the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Doyon Foundation is working to translate it into indigenous languages of the Doyon region.

A graphic created to translate the message "wash your hands" into indigenous languages of the Doyon region. (Doyon Foundation)

Doris Miller, executive director of Doyon Foundation, says she was speaking to Lanien Livingston, who served as President of the board for nine years, and had the idea about having translations made in the languages of the Doyon Region.

“We had that discussion and got pretty excited about it. So when I came to work I was talking with Allan about it and he just got on board and sent it out to our translators, and they were able to turn that around pretty quickly for us,” said Miller.

There are ten languages in the Doyon Region including Holikachuk, Denaakk’e (Koyukon), Benhti Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana), Hän, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in), Deg Xinag, Denak’i (Upper Kuskokwim), Nee'anděg' (Tanacross), Née’aaneegn’ (Upper Tanana) and Inupiaq.

“Our languages are alive and being used today, so we wanted to put this really important messaging out there to our communities and have these safe practices that are being advised,” said Allan Hayton, director of Doyon Foundation’s Language Revitalization Program.

The messages they translated include:
-Wash your hands
-Stay at home
-Protect our elders and children
-Don’t touch your face
-Social Distancing

Doyon Foundation has translations of these messages in Denaakk’e/Koyukon, Dinak’i/Upper Kuskokwim, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa/Gwich’in, Hän, and Nee'aanèegn'/Upper Tanana.

Hayton says the communities have been responding and taking precautions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Before the state offered the travel ban for passengers, many of the communities were closing down and having memories of the 1918 flu epidemic here in Alaska. It wiped out many of our people. People still have that in their memories, their living memories -- so I think we responded very quickly to helping to stop the spread of this because it is very important to protect our elders and protect each other,” said Hayton.

Hayton and Miller say protecting elders and children within communities is a large part of their culture. She says the translation they did talking about protecting children and elders was one of their most popular translations.

“For people to be able to share this in their own language and to translate it in that way, it really comes from the heart just a little bit more, because our language and communicating that way is so important to us,” said Miller.

Miller says they were sharing the translations mainly through graphics on social media, but people started requesting videos so they could learn how to pronounce the phrases.

“Our languages embody so much of our identity; connection to each other, to our ancestors, to the land, culture, there’s just so much wrapped up in language. It is not just a collection of verbs, and adverbs, and conjugations, all those grammatical things... it’s also our people’s history and stories. So much is wrapped up in language,” said Hayton.

Hayton says they are trying to provide learning opportunities for younger generations who want to learn the languages. “They look to us to provide opportunities and resources, and so that’s what we see our role as -- to be a resource for our languages and to provide opportunities for learning. These languages are endangered, so we’re doing this for the future of our languages,” said Hayton.

Miller says they have translators to help with language revitalization. “That work is very important for the future of our people and connecting them with our traditions, our culture... and our language is very important for their own well-being,” said Miller.

She says they have a project called “Doyon Languages Online” which they have been working on for years so that people can learn five different languages online. They are free and open to anyone who wants to learn or teach these languages.

“Our speakers, and the people who are interested and have a passion for language... they’re creating this. They’re creating the lessons themselves, and we are kind of the resource for them to be able to do that,” said Miller.

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