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The race to save a forbidden language in Alaska

Memory, stigma, and the nearly-lost history of Ninilchik Russian

By Ella Jacobson

Wayne Leman remembers the first time he heard his father disregard a decades-old family agreement not to speak Ninilchik Russian. It was 1984, and they were visiting Leman’s grandmother in the hospital. She had a year left to live.

Leman doesn’t know what his father said to his grandmother — like the rest of his generation, he was never taught the language — but he remembers the tone of his father’s voice. It was tender but powerful, cutting through everything else in the room.

For almost a century, Ninilchik Russian was the dominant language spoken in Ninilchik, the village where generations of the Leman family grew up, along a mile of isolated coastline in south central Alaska. The language survived the sale of Alaska to America in 1867 because Ninilchik was isolated from outsiders and ignored by American authorities. 

But Wayne Leman’s grandmother told her children to stop speaking her native tongue to her in 1959, the year Alaska became a U.S. state. She had seen her son’s generation punished by Americans for speaking Ninilchik Russian, and didn’t want the same fate to befall her grandchildren. Leman first learned of her request from a relative, many years after that hospital visit. He was aware it was a powerful moment, but he had no idea how significant his father’s small act of intimacy was in his family’s long, fraught history with the language.

Today, everyone in the village of Ninilchik speaks English. Only a few native Ninilchik Russian speakers remain, all of them over 85.

Leman, now 69, didn’t want this heritage to vanish from village memory. So he embarked on a quest to preserve the vanishing language. Joining forces with others from Ninilchik, he worked with two Russian linguists and a cultural anthropologist to help compile a written and audio Ninilchik Russian dictionary. The final version of the decades-long project will be released at the end of 2019.

Without this intervention, odds are that Ninilchik Russian — which was never written down — would have been lost to history. Every two weeks, a language vanishes without being recorded. Half of the 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to disappear sometime this century.

The dictionary project suggests a roadmap for seizing the growing local and international interest in recording vanishing cultural heritages. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has declared 2019 the year of the indigenous language, which linguists hope will lead to more interest — and funding — for chronicling more obscure dialects before they go extinct.

Sixty years after every other Russian city in Alaska had switched to English, Ninilchik villagers were keeping records with the Julian calendar and speaking only Ninilchik Russian.

Leman, a linguist himself who specializes in the Cheyenne language, hoped that recording the words would remove some of the shame that had built up around Ninilchik Russian for his father’s generation. It worked. “Ninilchik speakers that we worked with — their eyes kind of lit up,” Leman explains. “They started seeing it was okay. All of these things that we’ve kept quiet about for all these years — It’s not going to hurt us anymore. We can laugh in the language.”

Linguists say that talking with Ninilchik Russian speakers is like stepping into the Russian Empire of the 1840s, the decade Ninilchik was permanently settled by Russian colonists and their Alaska Native wives. For the next 50 years, virtually no new Russian speakers visited the area, and so the dialect remained frozen in time.

The village was so isolated that it took almost no notice of the sale of Alaska to America in 1867. In turn, America took little notice of Ninilchik. Most Russian cities in Alaska Americanized after the sale when American troops were deployed to take possession of the land. But Ninilchik was too small to attract the soldiers’ attention, and too far from the major gold rush areas to draw more than a handful of prospectors. Sixty years after every other Russian city in Alaska had switched to English, Ninilchik villagers were keeping church records with the Julian calendar and speaking only Ninilchik Russian.

That changed when The Territorial English School opened in Ninilchik in 1911. Leman’s father, Nick, attended. Like the rest of the students, he didn’t speak English when he entered, but speaking Russian was not allowed. This was a common requirement at the time for non-English speakers assimilating into the American school system. When students were caught, their mouths were sometimes washed out with soap containing naphtha, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and lung damage when ingested.

Plus, to many outsiders, Ninilchik Russian seemed indistinguishable from Alaskan Native languages. Discrimination against Alaska Natives was rampant — schools were segregated in some areas, and some establishments had “whites only” sections. So when Ninilchik young people traveled to cities, they downplayed their Russian heritage and spoke English as a matter of self-preservation.

When relations with the Soviet Union improved and more Russians began traveling to Alaska in the 1970s, more marginalization came, this time from abroad. Tourists who spoke Moscow Russian criticized the villagers’ preserved-in-amber dialect, which had no words for “lighter” and “light switch” and anachronistic terms for others, like “bathroom” and “tuberculosis.” 

For Ninilchik residents, the gulf between “standard” Russian and their dialect created a sense of not quite belonging anywhere. 

As Leman’s interest in his heritage grew, so did his childhood classmate McKibben Jackinsky’s. In 1992, Jackinsky accompanied her father, who was also born in Ninilchik, on a trip to Russia. Together, they entered one of its active Russian Orthodox churches in the middle of a service. Jackinsky watched her father, who had refused to speak to her in Ninilchik Russian her entire life, let his usual guardedness fall away as he joined the congregation, singing the responses in Russian.

“It was so moving to me, how deeply that was a part of him; how much it had stayed with him in spite of all that he went through,” she says. “There was a wholeness about him that I had never seen.” Hearing the language brought back her own childhood memories of sitting in her great grandmother’s house, drinking Russian tea with canned milk and listening to her babushka talk.

Michael Krauss, the director of the Alaska Native Languages department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was aware of the growing interest in Ninilchik Russian. When he heard two Russian linguists were traveling through interior Alaska, he knew he had to ask for help.

Andrej Kibrik, a renowned Russian linguist, was visiting Alaska with his wife Mira Bergelson, a prominent linguist specializing in intercultural communication, to record a different language. When Krauss told them about a remote village that wanted to preserve its vanishing Russian dialect, Kibrik and Bergelson were intrigued.

Ninilchik residents pooled their resources and time to make the couple’s first visit productive, providing them meals and a motorhome. For two weeks in 1997, Kibrik and Bergelson interviewed Ninilchik Russian speakers, whom linguists call consultants, in their homes, recording 1,000 of the most common nouns.

Sometimes a word simply doesn’t exist. After decades of searching, Bergelson has not been able to find a word for “grandchild.”

They were helped by grandchildren like Wayne Leman, whose grandmother used to share the food she cooked and tell him the Russian words for what he was eating: pirok for the salmon pies she baked, prastak’isha for the thick clabbered milk she’d pour sugar into to cut its sourness, and balik for the crimson strands of salmon that came from the smoke house in her backyard.

But building a dictionary is harder than listing scattered words.

Sometimes natural disasters and outside events can thwart a project. In 1964, the second most powerful earthquake in recorded world history tore through Alaska, sparing Ninilchik but destroying several other Russian speaking villages. That hastened the language’s disappearance from the area and left linguists with a much smaller pool of consultants.

And living sources aren’t uniformly helpful. Sometimes, the consultants don’t remember what different words mean, or repeat the same words and stories over and over. Sometimes they may be hard of hearing and unable to participate. They might not want to be videoed or recorded, or may be suspicious of the sudden outside interest after so much scorn. Leman has spent hours establishing trust between the linguists and his Ninilchik Russian-speaking family members.

The interviewing process can be painstaking for consultants. When recording dictionary entries, linguists talk to their consultants mostly in English. Using more mainstream Russian would be confusing; the Ninilchik dialect has different pronunciations as well as different vocabulary. Linguists don’t want to impose their own definition, so they ask: Do you remember the Russian word for “stove?” If the word doesn’t come immediately, they give context to refresh the consultant’s memory, saying something like “My mother cooked a nice stew on the stove.”

When a consultant almost remembers a word, Bergelson says, “it becomes like a quest.” At that point, she might list many Russian words relating to stove to see if a certain word jogs the consultant’s memory.

Sometimes a word simply doesn’t exist. After decades of searching, Bergelson has not been able to find a word for “grandchild.”

After securing funding to continue working on the project, Bergelson, Kibrik and cultural anthropologist Marina Raskladkina visited Ninilchik several more times. In 2017 they released a version of the dictionary, but the work isn’t done; Bergelson is still checking definitions, replacing recordings of poor quality, and hunting down missing words. When the project began, the linguists interviewed 20 consultants; now only a few are left.

Eighty-seven-year-old Selma Leman, Wayne’s aunt, is among the last. She grew up speaking Ninilchik Russian with her eight siblings in a turquoise-painted cabin. Her children, who grew up out of state, are interested in learning more about their heritage, so she has become one of the most involved speakers for the dictionary project.

She’s sat for dozens of interviews. But she is still bemused at the attention from outside the village. “Why are people so interested in this?” she asks.

Another 87-year-old speaker refused to work with the linguists who came into town to record the language. For some, Leman explains, “It’s just too painful.”

In the final version of the dictionary, which Bergelson hopes to release at the end of 2019, most of the 2,500 entries will have an audio component and be cross-referenced to related words. But just leafing through the first version of the dictionary has given people like Leman and Jackinsky a tangible piece of their family histories and identity.

In 1993, shortly after her trip with her father to Russia, Jackinsky decided to build a cabin on her summer property in Ninilchik. She spent weeks coming up with a design that felt just right. “Then it dawned on me,” she says — the design she had come up with was very similar to a Russian Orthodox chapel.

Word spread around Ninilchik about her cabin. People started sending her photos of the church in nearby Kenai, Alaska, as well as Russian Orthodox crosses. A friend crafted her a copper and brass onion dome for the roof, and they decided to turn it into a time capsule. People who learned of the dome sent even more mementos — poems and cards and a copy of Agrafena’s Children, a 600-page genealogical history of the village written by Leman. Jackinsky sealed everything in the dome high above her head.

Now, when she sits in the cabin, with the dictionary next to her and the assortment of treasured items above, she feels connected to her babushka, her father’s full-throated singing in that church, and the nearly-lost history of her Alaska town. It makes her more herself. 

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Ella Jacobson is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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