Peter Kalifornsky (1911-1993), the Dena’ina Athabaskan Alaskan writer, is revered for A Dena’ina Legacy K’tl’egh’i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky, published in Alaska two years before his death in Kenai, in 1993. His book is an immense accomplishment, for Peter Kalifornsky was the first to carry his oral language, Dena’ina, into written literature. His originality of style, his linguistic theory, his scrupulous insistence on the primacy of the word all mark him as an author for the larger world

Behind his great book, however, lay another, a shadow-book. Peter Kalifornsky wished to tell the “back story” of his language. He knew he would not write it; he asked for a secretary. In 1983, a younger poet came to his door. Working together in English over the next five years, they composed new translations of his Dena’ina texts, for he had taken up his pen once more. Their long conversations turned on writing and meaning, the theory of metaphor, imagination and the nature of the mind, the powers of the animals, the old Den’aina beliefs, their law and regulation, their history. As the young poet asked questions, writing as he spoke, the old author laid out before her the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual history of the Old Dena’ina, all come down to the mind of their first writer.

Peter Kalifornsky described the inner workings of his oral language. He explained how the act of writing, itself, taught him aspects he had never considered.

“I wrote that story, yes, in my native language. It’s written; and all I was fighting for was to preserve my native language. But what we’re getting into – how to read the background – gets complicated. From the beginning, the stories were put forward for a people to study, the nations and what-not.”

The author directed the arrangement of his translated stories and texts into a new, intricate order of four cycles, or circles, in which the stories “bounced back and forth” between each other. Painstakingly, the young poet then annotated them, edited their discussions into a concordance, and composed a complex, two-volume manuscript. But the manuscript did not become the book they had intended, and Peter Kalifornsky died, having achieved the publication of his Dena’ina writings and, thus, the preservation of his language as he wished it to be spelled.

But he had given the young poet a copy of his manuscript and cassette tapes of all his writings, recorded by himself, so that those who followed would know how to pronounce his language. Now she had four parts — their translations, their conversations, his own pages, and his voice. How could she bring them all together?

I was that younger poet. I am bringing our joint work out of the shadows into this borderless digital medium and opening it to new generations. It called From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking and it has taken form as a multi-touch, multimedia iBook. The first volume — three more will follow — is now on iTunes. There, you can read our conversations and our translations of his stories. You can hear him sing. In future, you’ll hear him recite his stories in Dena’ina. You can see pages of his manuscript. From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking is a work in progress.

This journal is a record of that progress.

     — Katherine McNamara

From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking, Vol. 1, The Animal Stories, by Peter Kalifornsky and Katherine McNamara


All proceeds from From the First Beginning iBooks support APE’s Kalifornsky Project.

About the authors:

Peter Kalifornsky was born on Oct. 12, 1911, in Kalifornsky village, Kenai peninsula, Alaska. He died on Jun. 5, 1993, in Nikiski, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska, U.S.A. Thought to be the last native speaker of his Dena’ina language, which is of the  Northern Athabaskan language group, Peter Kalifornsky was dedicated to preserving that language through his published writings and teachings of the Dena’ina people. He was the son of Nikolai Kalifornsky (1884-1965), grandson of Aleksay Kalifornsky (1867-1926), great-grandson of Feodore Kalifornsky (1826-1896), and great-great-grandson of Qadanalchen, chief of the Kalifornsky Village, who received his surname while at Fort Ross in California (1811-1821). Peter Kalifornsky’s mother, who died when he was a baby, came from the distinguished Chickalusion family, of Old Tyonek. Simeon Chickalusion, his mother’s brother, was the last traditional chief of the Dena’ina.

Peter Kalifornsky’s published books:

  • Kalifornsky, Peter. Kahtnuht’ana Qenaga: the Kenai People’s Language. Edited by James Kari. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, 1977.
  • _________. K’tl’egh’I Sukdu: Remaining Stories. Edited by Jane McGary, and James Kari. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, 1984.
  • _________. A Dena’ina Legacy — K’tl’egh’I Sukdu: the Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky. Edited by James Kari, and Alan Boraas. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, 1991.
  • _________, and Katherine McNamara. From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking: the Animal Stories of Peter Kalifornsky. Translated by Peter Kalifornsky, and Katherine McNamara. Edited by Katherine McNamara. Vol. I, From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking. Charlottesville, Virginia: Artist’s Proof Editions, 2014.

Katherine McNamara is the author of a non-fiction narrative, Narrow Road to the Deep North, A Journey into the Interior of Alaska, and founding editor and publisher (1996-2007) of Archipelago, a journal of literature, the arts, and opinion published on the Web. She directs Artist’s Proof Editions and is an iBooks producer. She has been a Fellow at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities several times, and is a member of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. She has spoken about the work of Peter Kalifornsky as writer and theoretician of writing at Cambridge University, University College Dublin, and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and has published articles on his work in Alaska Quarterly Review and New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism. She is on Facebook and may be reached at kalifornskyproject @ gmail.com. Her Twitter handle is @McNamaraWriter.

The photographic header image is “Trickster” (c)Guy L. Monty. Used with permission and gratitude.

More about From the First Beginning, the book, is on Artist’s Proof Editions.