Guide to the Upper Tanana (Nabesna) Language Collection


All materials in the Upper Tanana collection are either written in or about the Upper Tanana language.  The earliest documents date from the 1950s and 1960s and are largely the works of Paul and Trude Milaniwski of the Summer Institute of Linguistics; they include religious and educational texts and beginning dictionary work.  Much of the collection dates from the mid- to late-1970s, with a focus on bilingual educational materials in the Upper Tanana language, much of which was published through the National Bilingual Materials Development Center in Anchorage.  Fieldnotes by Krauss, de Laguna, Leer, and others also form an important part of the collection and tend to focus on phonology and verb forms.  Work on dialects, grammars, and traditional texts are less well represented.  The collection also includes research papers and conference materials.  Photocopied material occasionally represents original material held by other repositories and certain reproduction and use restriction apply.

Language Information

Upper Tanana Athabascan (earlier called “Nabesna” by Osgood and Hojier) is spoken mainly in the Alaska villages of Northway, Tetlin, and Tok, but has a small population also across the border in Canada. The Alaskan population is about 300, of whom perhaps 105 speak the language.  There are some minor but systematic dialectal differences between the villages.  During the 1960s, Paul Milanowski established a writing system; linguistic documentation has continued slowly but steadily to the present.  

Scope and Content Note

The scope of the Upper Tanana language collection is quite broad in that it strives to include all material written or published in or about the Upper Tanana Language.  Dr. Michael Krauss made an effort to collect all things Upper Tanana, and has developed a nearly comprehensive collection.  Generally, the collection contains materials relating to linguistic fieldwork, academic research, and educational materials for schoolchildren. However, comparatively little material concerns religious texts in the Upper Tanana Language, and only a handful of traditional stories can be found in the collection.

Linguistic documentation of the Upper Tanana language started relatively late compared to many of the other Alaskan Athabascan languages.  The earliest work dates from 1929 and contains wordlists for animal names, body parts, etc., collected by Robert McKennan.  The first extensive documentation was undertaken by Paul Milanowski; Milanowski’s research spans the period from 1961 to 1975 (18 items).  Milanowski was part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and a great deal of his work and involves the production of literacy materials, a proposed orthography, beginning work on a dictionary, and translations of religious materials.  He also took part in bilingual education materials development in the 1970s and produced a number of translations of primers from other Alaskan Native languages.  Other important linguistic documentation was produced by Alaska Native Language Center staff:  Michael Krauss (3 items) conducted fieldwork in the 1960s on dialect comparisons and on phonology; Jeff Leer (3 items) studied aspects of the phonology and grammar in the 1970s; and James Kari (17 items) has collected information on the lexicon, the grammar, place names, and traditional texts from 1980 to the present. Another important contributor since 1989 to lexical studies in particular has been Nobukatsu Minoura (6 items).  Although there are some originals, many of the fieldnotes are photocopies provided by the author or field researcher.
By far the largest part of the collection pertains to educational materials, most of which are elementary readers and children’s literacy exercises, produced from the 1960s to the 1970s and published by the National Bilingual Materials Development Center (NBMDC) in Anchorage.  Many of these were developed by Milanowski, as mentioned above.  Many others are translations by John Alfred (11 items) of templates of children’s primers from the NBMDC; some are original primers developed by Shirley Jimerson (5 items) in the 1970s or, more recently, by Bessie John (5 items) in the 1990s.


Extent: 5 manuscript boxes covering 2 linear feet.

Languages: Collection languages are both Upper Tanana and English.  Some documents offers Upper Tanana words in comparison to other Athabaskan languages in Alaska.