By Alexandra J. McClanahan
"A Dena'ina Legacy, K'tl'egh'I Sukdu, The Collected Writings
of Peter Kalifornsky," is truly a priceless resource for anyone
interested in learning more about the Dena'ina language, legends
and culture. The book is a collection of writings compiled over
nearly 20 years by Kalifornsky, one of the last speakers of the
Kenai dialect of the Dena'ina Athabascan language of Cook Inlet.
In addition to the stories, the book contains Cook Inlet maps,
place names for many landmarks and geographical features throughout
the region, photos dating back to the late 1800s, the Dena'ina alphabet,
translations of many common words and a biography of Peter Kalifornsky.
First published in 1991 by the University of Alaska Fairbanks'
Alaska Native Language Center with assistance from The CIRI Foundation,
the book was produced by Kalifornsky, who worked with editors James
Kari, a linguist, and Alan Boraas, an anthropologist.
Maps courtesy of Alaska Native Language
According to Boraas, development of the book was challenging and
demanding for all involved, but that in the end it was worth all
"Very few people know how difficult it was to bring "A
Dena'ina Legacy" to print. Aside from the technical problems
of putting a bilingual publication together and the many, many editorial
decisions that had to be made, countless cultural interests and
personal issues had to be resolved," he said.
"Many people wanted to shape 'A Dena'ina Legacy' according
to their conception of what Native American literature should be.
I am proud to say, however, that Peter Kalifornsky had the final
say in all matters and had complete editorial control including
using a modification of an Athabascan orthography (alphabet) which
is unique to his writing. Peter had complete authority over the
stories that went into the book which, by itself, involved difficult
Kalifornsky was born Oct. 12, 1911, at Kalifornsky Village on the
Cook Inlet bluff. The tiny village was located four miles north
of the Kasilof River mouth on the Kenai Peninsula. His name for
the place was Unhghenesditnu, translated as "farthest creek
over." His mother, Agrafena Chickalusion Kalifornsky, died
when he was two years old, so, in addition to his father Nick, he
was raised by his aunts and later an uncle and his wife.
Kalifornsky spent most of his life in Kenai, working at various
construction and fishing related jobs, as well as subsistence hunting
and fishing and running a trap line. As a child he was educated
in the English language and was beaten with a stick for speaking
Dena'ina in public school.
His formal education went only through the fifth grade, but in
his later life, Kalifornsky worked closely for almost 20 years with
Kari and Boraas to record and study his language and the oral traditions
of his ancestors.
He discussed his philosophy in an interview for the book "Our Stories,
Our Lives" in 1985: "I'm still working on my Native language,
trying to preserve that's been disappeared. I'm the only one left that's
in here that can preserve it. And this is just what I'm doing."
"A Dena'ina Legacy" won a Book of the Year award in 1992 from
the Before Columbus Foundation. Kalifornsky died the next year on June
5, leaving behind priceless research and writings about his forebears
and his culture. His focus was not to create scholarly books for dusty
archives, but to bring Dena'ina back as a living language in Southcentral
"During the four years I worked on the book, I experienced some
of the most powerful intellectual insights, emotional highs, and dispiriting
lows of my career. It was equally emotional for Peter," Boraas said.
"A lot of the perspective I learned from Peter has informed my work
as a teacher and anthropologist."
As work progressed on the book, it was never a given that it would be
published, Boraas said. "The worst times were when the entire project
came very close to being dropped. In the end, those of us close to the
project were sustained by a sense of destiny that this book would be a
legacy for the Dena'ina people and a classic of Alaskan literature. When
the book finally emerged in print, we knew we had done something that
would positively affect people for a long, long time."
The first edition of the book is available for $16 from The CIRI Foundation,
2600 Cordova Street, Suite 206, Anchorage, AK 99503-2745; phone, (907)
263-5582. A 10th anniversary edition, published in 2001, retails for $27
and is available from the Alaska Native Language Center, P.O. Box 757680,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7680; or by calling