Alaska Native Language Loses Last Fluent Speaker
The world and the Holikachuk Athabascan language suffered a great loss with the passing of Wilson “Tiny” Deacon on March 10, 2012. He was 86. According to Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, he was the last fluent speaker of his language, though thankfully there are still others who speak Holikachuk Athabascan.
“He strongly identified his life with the traditional, now-abandoned village of Holikachuk on the Innoko River in interior Alaska, where he was born. Tiny spent many years hunting and trapping in the forests of the Innoko River region and possessed an almost unimaginable wealth of traditional knowledge about the land and its inhabitants, including the history, language and culture of his people. To know him was to be in the presence of a great and quiet wisdom,” she said in an e-mail to Indian Country Today Media Network.
Deacon was born in Holikachuk on September 25, 1926 to the late Yankee Yinagunoilil and Ella Deacon. He enjoyed trapping, hunting and fishing with his wife, Edna Deacon. The two were inseparable.
“Tiny had a deep spiritual knowledge of, and connection to, the land, and a respect for the other beings who lived on it,” Raymond-Yakoubian explained. “He knew how to talk to animals and how to subsist and survive on the land using traditional, non-Western technology. He knew the stories of medicine men, the prophecies from the past, and the origins of and manner in which traditional ceremonial dances were performed.” This is why he was helping the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with the study of the Holikachuk language and culture.
Deacon spent 29 years working as a light operator for Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.
“He worked very hard his entire life; in addition to hunting and trapping, he worked as a woodchopper, in a salmon cannery, and was proud to have worked almost three decades for the local power plant,” Raymond-Yakoubian said. “Tiny also held a great interest in how other people in the world lived, enjoyed reading, was fond of beaver meat, and was a boxing aficionado.”
Deacon was remembered in a potlatch, service and funeral in Grayling and Shageluk in the days following his passing.
“For those who loved him and whom he loved, his ever-present gentleness will forever leave an indelible mark, and calls us to a life of peace and kindness through his example,” Raymond-Yakoubian said. “We can think of no better tribute and remembrance to Tiny than to try to follow that example.”