Jesuit priest helped preserve language for Alaska Natives


“Alaska is a thing of the future much more than a thing of the past,” Jesuit priest Jules Jette wrote in the 1920s.

“Even of the little that is known, a good part has been painted in fanciful colors or inaccurately recorded. To take all this for granted and strictly limit myself to the description of Catholic missionary work in the country would have been, it seems to me, as setting a real picture in an imaginary frame.”

Father Jules Jette (1864-1927) made good on his high standards. As a missionary priest coming to Alaska in 1898, his primary role meant conversions and baptisms among the Athabaskans, but as a scholar, he wanted to chronicle the multitudinous complexities of the Koyukon Athabaskan language and culture.

As a humanitarian who loved the Ten’a people, the melding of those two vocations meant Father Jette was uniquely able to bestow a lasting gift on Alaska’s unknown future: An encyclopedic dictionary on the Koyukon — the most widely spoken Athabascan language in Alaska. Spoken primarily in the western interior of Alaska, the language now has less than 300 speakers and the number is steadily falling.

To preserve the language for posterity was no ordinary accomplishment.

“The Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary is a great potlatch of language,” said Alaska anthropologist Richard Nelson who is perhaps most known as the host the popular public radio series called Encounters.

Speaking to the Catholic Anchor, Nelson said Father Jette’s dictionary is “arrayed with the gifts of words, each one as precious — and potentially as fleeting — as the breath it is borne on.”

Father Jette’s dictionary was not meant to be merely a work for academics, but aimed at relaying the heart of the Athabaskans.

His love of the customs and words come through in his tidy calligraphy script.

Yet time itself was against the man, the priest and the scholar.

His dictionary wasn’t published until 102 years after he wrote his first Koyukon vocabulary notation. By then, he’d elicited a lot of help beyond the grave.

The result is the Koyukon Athabaskan Language Dictionary, by Father Jules Jette and native speaker Eliza Jones, edited by James Kari.



At the turn of the end of the 19th century, Alaska attracted Catholic priests who embraced the difficult missions outlined by their superiors. Jesuit Aloysius Robaut, who traveled up the Yukon River and founded the Holy Cross Mission in 1887, wrote a harrowing description of life in the Alaska mission lands.

“Those winters of seven months with interminable nights in houses poorly lit and poorly heated were too much for those men that psychologically were not equal to it. It took a strong physical constitution, a nervous system firmly set on an even keel, a healthy sense of humor, a character impervious to moodiness and a zeal for the glory of God … To survive, one had to possess them all and in a heroic degree.”

Father Jette didn’t seem a likely candidate. Born in 1864 in Montreal, he entered a life of title and privilege. His father, Sir Louis-Amable Jette, served as a judge and professor before becoming lieutenant governor of Quebec in 1898. His mother, Lady Jette, founded the order Sisters of Charity of Montreal.

At 18, Father Jette entered the Jesuit novitiate, wrote his biographer, Jesuit Father Louis Renner, in Alaskana Catholica. At age 32, Father Jette was ordained a priest in the Jesuit Order. His studies in the humanities and natural sciences included a three-year focus in advanced mathematics at the best schools in France and Canada. This was hardly typical training ground for spending seven months of winter’s interminable nights in houses poorly lit and poorly heated.



Yet soon after arriving in the Yukon River village of Nulato in 1898, he identified with Interior Alaskans, called the Ten’a.

“I am indeed very much like a native on the point of sensitiveness, and this gives me a wonderful facility to understand them,” he wrote in a 1899 letter to his superiors. “I have only to treat them as I would be treated myself.”

Father Jette set about learning the language. He visited families and accompanied the Ten’a men on fishing and hunting trips, keeping his notebook handy to record words and stories. In watching women prepare hides, he recorded minute details such as how many times they scraped skins for drying. He also undertook a census of 1,300 names, birth dates and genealogy, as well as geographical names.

An old sourdough’s story described Jette as delicate and “five-feet and a little something. He had the appetite of a mouse and his face like a baby angel’s only tougher, you understand, and possessing a heart as big as his two feet.”

A fellow priest described him as wearing the poorest clothes and claiming for himself the most uncomfortable room.

“He had made up his mind to make himself Indian with the Indians,” wrote Jesuit Father Joseph Perrow.

Within four years, Father Jette was fluent in Koyukon, Renner wrote. An area the size of Minnesota encompasses this group of language speakers. Father Jette took confessions in the language and celebrated Mass, impressing both the Ten’a and visiting outsiders.

Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck stayed for a service presided by Father Jette in 1906 in Nulato. Later he wrote, “Here for the first and only time, I listened to a white man so fluent and vigorous in the native tongue that he gave one the impression of eloquence.”

Abruptly in 1903, after five fruitful years in Alaska, he was sent to leave what he called “this blessed soil” for a return to Canada by his Jesuit superiors.

“He was perplexed by the summons, all the more because his health was good,” Renner wrote.

Obediently, he left Nulato for the Jesuit college of St. Boniface in Winnipeg where he “taught mathematics, wore Indian moccasins and smoked his pipe in class,” Renner records.

As time allowed, he began to compile a short grammar of Koyukon. By 1904 he was back in Alaska in time to accompany his beloved Koyukon for their fall hunt.

“As I arrived in Nulato after a full one year’s absence from my flock, having lost one half of my Indian language and my muscles softened by quiet college life, I felt bound to plunge into Indian life again, renew old acquaintances, pick up some strength of limb and some fluency of speech, and above all keep company with the native and remind them there’s a God to serve and a religion to practice,” Father Jette wrote.



From 1908 to 1915, he worked on his 2,344-page Koyukon dictionary, despite limitations such as frozen ink and scarce sheets of paper. Yet, bent over his manuscripts in his 17-by-17 foot log cabin on the banks of the Yukon River, he found genuine satisfaction and peace in his labors, Renner wrote.

During this time Father Jette published “L’Organization sociale des Ten’as,” and an 85-page article “On Ten’a Folklore,” as well as “Riddles of the Ten’a Indians.”

On July 18, 1916, he became a naturalized American citizen. His work and popularity among the Ten’a gave him a connection few failed to notice in a vast region. He obtained a camera and began to photograph people he served, documenting them for posterity. He processed the glass plates himself, then gave many photos to people to keep. He’d taken part in all the seasons of people’s lives.



When an accident befell Father Jette on Oct. 22, 1922, it didn’t seem fatal. On that day in the Yukon River village of Tanana, he lifted a large log he meant to saw into firewood. He suffered a hernia just at freeze up when travel was nearly impossible. Trails lacked snow. Eleven days passed before friends could get Father Jette to doctors in Nenana, transporting him by boat and dogsled. He was nearly dead when he arrived, Renner wrote, his hernia found to be strangulated. Already gangrene had set in.

Recuperation meant a year in a Fairbanks hospital and an operation in Seattle, then more recuperation at Seattle University. Teaching French, acting as spiritual father to the Jesuit community, and writing a partial history of the Alaska mission kept him from returning to Alaska until 1926.

When he finally made it back to Alaska, he planned to assist in St. Joseph’s Mission along the Akulurak River. He died eight months later in the now-abandoned village of Akulurak on Feb. 4, 1927. He is buried there on the frozen tundra, in a grave marked and visited by his Jesuit descendants.



Father Jette didn’t publish his seven-volume dictionary during his lifetime partly due to his perfectionist nature. He didn’t consider it finished as he sought deeper understanding of a certain sound or additional meaning. When he died, the manuscripts may have been with him. By 1936, they were certainly in Nulato though, and the Rev. Joseph McElmeel, superior there, placed the manuscript at the disposal of Jesuit Father Robert Sullivan who was at Nulato doing research for his doctoral dissertation, called “The Ten’a Food Question.” Father Sullivan told Renner in 1996 that he was given the manuscript with an aim of publishing it. In 1943 — seven years later — the manuscript was mailed to Spokane at the request of the Jesuit’s Oregon Province archivist Father William Lyle Davis.

Many years later, Father Wilfrid Schoenberg, an archivist of Jesuit papers at Gonzaga University, rescued the rest of Father Jette’s papers from an old shed in Nulato in June 1958.

“I heard since, that flooding waters swept the shed and contents down the river,” he told Renner. Fortunately, the dictionary was not in it.



Alaska Native languages themselves were faced with destruction from 1920-1960 when the American education system imposed on villages demanded only English be learned and spoken. But an ambitious revival began at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when the Alaska Native Language Center was founded. Linguist Michael Krauss arrived at UAF and began the research program for the languages in the 1960s. Eliza Jones, a Koyukon who had already worked extensively with written translations, began working with the dictionary in 1972.

“Many years ago, I got this bright idea that I could make a dictionary of our language and I figured I could have it done in two years,” Jones wrote in her introduction to the Koyukon dictionary.

When Krauss introduced her to Father Jette’s dictionary manuscript, it was the first Koyukon writing she had seen that she wasn’t directly involved in producing.

“I was so fascinated with this manuscript that had been written before my time. It was like listening to an elder telling me stories of the past. I wanted to re-transcribe and reorganize the material and combine it with my own knowledge of the language. I have worked with Father Jette’s material for so long that it has become like working with a real live person. I find myself arguing with him on some things,” she wrote.

Getting the dictionary prepared for publication would take 23 years.

James Kari, who headed the Alaska Native Language Center for many years at UAF and edited the dictionary, like Krauss, became familiar with the full body of Father Jette’s writings, illustrations and photos, stored in the Gonzaga University archives.

The 1,118-page dictionary that made its way to print April 1, 2000, clearly was built on the body of Father Jette’s work. Kari remains fascinated with the Jesuit priest’s organization and contributions. The result of nearly 30 years in Alaska left a tremendous trove of opportunities for future scholars, Kari said. In Gonzaga University’s archives his written works take up more than nine feet of space.

In raw form, Father Jette’s language manuscript contained 2,344 pages. The dictionary contains many drawings made by Jette to illustrate concepts such as the various designs of Ten’a hunting traps, fish snares and snow goggles. One entry details the Hi’o stick dance and its 13 songs.



Father Jette’s intimate knowledge of the Koyukon language clearly came from his relationship with the people, Kari said, coupled with his academic abilities.

“He took confessions and so he was intimately aware and yet treated people with profound respect,” he said. “Jette was a great genius of his time. Probably the greatest linguistic scholar of any person in his career and the richest of anyone since him.”

The most visible revelation about Father Jette’s character is handed down through his handwriting — tidy, tiny, flowing lines.

Among the difficulties of being a scholar in the far north were a shortage of paper and the difficulty of frozen ink. Father Jette maximized each page with his miniscule handwriting.

Perhaps the root of his life’s work was a love for conversation and stories, like the Ten’a he found. One December day in 1901, he traveled by dog team with Koyukon companions, Nelorotemel and Tlitsona. Father Jette thought to stop and have a meal, perhaps visit for a while.

“And what are you thinking about?” Nelorotemel asked him. “Do you think the days are long enough at this time of year for us to spare one hour of daylight for cooking a meal?”

Nelorotemel softened that by adding he thought of Father Jette as more Ten’a than white man. “And there is no Indian who would think of taking his meal now.”

Father Jette got his point and they traveled on. When they finally quit for the day, they fixed a fire and ate. Then it was time to talk, time for stories.

“After supper a long and interesting conversation ensued, for a life without talking is not life to a Ten’a, and we had kept a forced silence the whole day long,” Father Jette wrote.

'Jesuit priest helped preserve language for Alaska Natives'
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