An alphabet I've created to infuse aboriginal ideas and concepts into a new written form of the terminally waning Dena'ina language is the basis of the Qena Sint'isis series. The title of the art series created from this alphabet consists of 'qena', the Dena'ina word for 'word', and the English word 'synthesis' that has been written as phonetic approximation through the lens of this Dena'ina alphabet. In effect, it is the reverse of using the English language and its version of the Latin (Roman) alphabet to transcribe an indigenous language of North America, as has been done with nearly all of these languages since the beginning of ethnographic studies' prominence.
The motivations behind this series are rooted in my personal indifference with viewing the "endangered" indigenous culture of my Alaskan tribe's people. While I have grown to appreciate efforts of archiving and revitalization, the resulting cultural objectification leaves me at odds in weighing the consensus of social anthropological ethics which favor preservation, antiquity-based craft, and historical revivalism, with my own personal experience which embraces fluidity of tradition in order to help society thrive in mercurial conditions. Although it has been demonstrated that these concepts are not always mutually exclusive, experiencing what is part of "my culture" as described by cultural conventions of those who are of an "other culture" has been a source of confusion and frustration, especially when one point of view can only ever exist in the home while the other can only ever exist in a classroom.
After years of studying what little exists of the pre-contact Dena'ina language, I have noticed that it is extraordinarily difficult to impartially retain linguistic elements without comparing the nature of the symbols and sounds against that of my native tongue, American English, and its version of the Latin alphabet. Although I hold the conventions of global language studies and its complex International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to codify any of the world's thousands of languages in high regard for its important work, the symbology embedded inside a distinct writing system offers an additional dimension to language appreciation in that particular tongue.
Because nearly every indigenous language of the Americas is written using the Latin alphabet based IPA, viewers' and readers' impressions are molded by their preexisting subconscious relationships with the symbols and patterns they have assigned to their native alphabet. An example is assigning personal memories and values to any given letter if certain loved ones have a name beginning with that letter. To remove that lens, I began work creating a system of 44 new symbols to correlate to the alphabet of Dena'ina. By exploring both familial and tribal histories and researching a number of records of the Dena'ina-endemic Cook Inlet region of Alaska, I completed the creation process over the course of 3 months.
It is my goal to use this alphabet and its abstractions to illustrate the reverse engineering of what it means to use visual sensations as modes of language by not only using concepts within Dena'ina but also using the syllabic functions to write English approximate and any other approximation of world languages. This is a perpendicular echo of how the Latin alphabet is used to describe indigenous languages, and the echo allows people to write ideas that venerate indigenous symbolism without sacrificing visual integrity. And much like any form of writing that has existed since antiquity, the alphabet's future will be laden with transformations of its own.
Exhibits and Installations
Qena Sint'isis, April 7th - May 29th, 2017
Exhibit at the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska
Q'es Krieyshon (2016)
Permanent installation located at the Ninilchik Traditional Council's Community Hall in Ninilchik, Alaska
Downloadable version of the Qena Sint'isis guidebook printed for the 2017 Pratt Museum exhibit.