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Carcross elder steps forward to continue language work of mother and sister

Yukon News
April 1, 2015

Tlingit Elder Norman James from Carcross graduated in 2013 from Yukon College with a Yukon Native Language Instructor Certificate

Respected Tlingit elder Norman James sounds like an old hand when it comes to making recordings of his language. A fluent speaker of Tlingit from Carcross, James is working with the Yukon Native Language Centre to produce new audio files for the online language lessons available through YNLC’s website.

He’s a natural, it turns out, according to staff linguist Doug Hitch, who conducts the recordings. “He has an FM radio voice and good microphone sense,” says Hitch. “I’ve watched different people and when they get the mic too close to the mouth, they don’t sound right,” says James. “Even the bingo announcer!” he adds with a grin.

James is continuing a long-standing family tradition in helping to preserve the Tlingit language. His late mother, Lucy Wren, who taught Tlingit at the Ghùch Tlâ Community School in Carcross for over 20 years, also recorded Tlingit language lessons at YNLC. Her cassette tape and print booklet were one of YNLC’s earliest language lesson sets. Today James’s niece Marlene Smith is the third generation of the family to teach Tlingit at the Carcross school. She succeeded her late mother, Mamie Smith, who was the daughter of Lucy Wren.

“We’ve known for some time that we needed to upgrade the Tlingit language lessons that Norman’s mother did,” explains YNLC’s founding director John Ritter. “It was a very early product, it wasn’t recorded with the advanced technology we have now.

“Norman has a strong baritone voice so I asked him, ‘Would you be willing to come in and work with us?’”

Last October, James spent three days at YNLC recording a full set of language lessons, working with Hitch, staff linguist Dr. André Bourcier, and YNLC’s acting director Roseanna Goodman. Lucy Wren’s own audio lessons were played sentence by sentence as they worked, but James didn’t simply mimic his mother’s pronunciation. “He brought his own stamp to bear on it,” says Ritter. “He was very careful about each Tlingit word and phrase. It was a real collaborative process.” The written transcriptions are being checked by renowned linguist Dr. Jeff Leer, who has worked with Tlingit speakers in Alaska, Yukon and B.C. for over 50 years. “We want to make sure that we present a text that is faithful to what Norman is actually pronouncing,” explains Ritter.

Tlingit is distantly related to the Athapaskan language family (to which all other Yukon native languages belong). Spoken by the coastal Tlingit people who controlled trade between Europeans and Yukon First Nations, Tlingit began spreading into the interior from Alaska two to three centuries ago. In the Yukon today, the Tlingit language is spoken mainly in the communities of Carcross and Teslin, as well as in the Atlin, B.C. area. Like other Yukon languages, Tlingit has more than one dialect. For Tlingit there are three - Carcross/Tagish (the dialect spoken by James), Teslin, and Atlin. “The written transcriptions have to be done very carefully to match the dialect of the language being spoken,” says Ritter. “Each dialect is unique and important.” Nevertheless, the different dialects are similar enough that all speakers of Tlingit can understand each other.

The contribution of a fluent speaker like Norman James is vital in preserving the language and recording it for future generations. “Norman is picking up where his sister and his mother left off,” says Ritter. “He’s coming forward and taking ownership. It’s a big step to put yourself out as a representative of a speech community.”

Since the early 1990’s YNLC has produced more than thirty versions of audio lessons for Yukon languages. Since 2003 a dozen versions have been made freely accessible online, beginning with the Ft. McPherson dialect of Gwich’in that was recorded by the late Mary Jane Kunnizzi. As Doug Hitch explains, technology has changed immensely in the dozen years since then, creating challenges in keeping YNLC’s catalogue of online audio materials available. There’s no easy way, for example, to convert the oldest online materials into the latest formats. “We can use the archived sound files and transcriptions together with the latest technology to make updated versions of the products, but it’s still a daunting amount of work,” says Hitch.

Apart from his recording work, James spends three hours a day in the classroom at Carcross school with his niece, native language instructor Marlene Smith. He received his YNLC Certificate in native language teacher training at Yukon College in 2013. >“We work together,” he explains. “Everything I say in Tlingit, Marlene’s got it all written down. The students too, they write. You give them a sentence in English, they write it on the board in Tlingit. That’s how good they’re getting to be. When they’re stuck on something, I help them out.” And because the students start learning Tlingit in pre-school, they already know a lot of the language when they reach Grade 1, James adds.

James remembers trapping as a younger man on his trapline in BC, just across the border, and selling those furs at the Matthew Watson General Store in Carcross, which operated like a trading post. “Matthew Watson spoke Tlingit as good as anyone else,” says James. “He asked his customers what they wanted—tea, sugar, coffee—and it was all in Tlingit. That’s how good he was.” James himself grew up speaking his language with his mother, uncles, and aunts. Too old for residential school, he never lost his language. “I held onto it, it stayed with me.”

As for his new role recording audio lessons, he says, “The kids in Carcross have heard me on the computer. They like it, they’re interested in the language.” He’s surprised, he says, but “some of us thought the language would come back some day if we work at it the right way.” Now, with the help of the Language Centre, that hope is becoming reality. “I guess we didn’t give up. We never give up.”

This article was prepared for the Yukon Native Language Centre by Patricia Robertson.

A native language master and living treasure

Yukon News
January 14, 2015

At 87, Percy Henry is one of the last fluent speakers of the Hän language, a living repository of traditional knowledge who has spent a lifetime working to pass on that knowledge to others. A former Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in chief and respected elder, Henry was awarded an honorary diploma in Northern Studies from Yukon College last spring in recognition of his mentorship role and his commitment to keeping his First Nation's traditions, language, and culture alive. He's a relaxed and benign presence at a recent Hän literacy workshop at the Yukon Native Language Centre, where he patiently repeats words and phrases in fluent Hän. He also provides the historical and cultural background to the language examples.

Two of the participants, Angie Joseph-Rear and Georgette McLeod, recently completed a ten-month Master-Apprentice Program with Henry, studying their language on a daily basis under a CYFN initiative. "It was pretty intense," says Joseph-Rear, until recently the long-time Hän language co-ordinator for Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in. "We worked every day for three hours. We'd go to my house or Georgette's house and sometimes the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in office."

Learning a Yukon native language like Hän is a hugely demanding enterprise. These languages are among the most complex in the world—much more so than English—with tonal variations like Mandarin Chinese and elaborate verb forms. That's why learners find the challenge so daunting. It's also why working with a fluent elder like Henry is vital, since both he and his students know he won't be around forever. "I have a hard time picking it up orally because I'm so busy writing it down," says Joseph-Rear. "But that's important because when I write it, I can read it, and down the road I'll be able to do that. We get as much as we can from Percy now."

The website of the Language Centre includes sound clips of fluent speakers as part of its online language lessons so that users can hear the language spoken. Unlike many others, Joseph-Rear didn't lose her language through residential school. "I never had it in the first place," she explains. "It was different in the Dawson area. The mission people—the minister and the teachers—encouraged our parents to speak only English to us. The adults spoke the language among themselves, but we children only learned English."

Hän is one of two native languages that Henry speaks. Born in traditional territory between the Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers to Gwich'in-speaking parents, Henry grew up in Moosehide, where many Hän speakers from the mouth of the Klondike River (now Dawson City) relocated during the gold rush. Henry's knowledge of Gwich'in as well as Hän is of significant help in his language teaching, since Gwich'in is the only Yukon native language with a tradition of literacy dating back almost 150 years. In its older written form, Tukudh, it was developed over a 40-year period starting in the 1860s through a remarkable collaboration between Archdeacon Robert McDonald, a part-Ojibwa Church of England missionary from Manitoba, and Gwich'in speakers from the N.W.T. to Alaska. Tukudh Bibles, hymns, and prayer books are still in use today and can be understood by older fluent speakers like Henry, who in turn can pass on a legacy that is highly valued by Gwich'in people.

John Ritter, founding director of the Language Centre, developed a modern Gwich'in writing system for the Canadian dialects of Gwich'in in the 1970s, using a modernized phonetic alphabet. That system is used for other Yukon native languages as well. The Language Centre has worked with First Nation communities throughout the territory to develop dictionaries, story books, and other written materials in each language. Joseph-Rear explains how she and Henry draw on his knowledge of Gwich'in in their lessons. "I don't know Gwich'in, but I can read really well, so sometimes we look for a word in my Gwich'in dictionary (in the Ft. McPherson dialect). I look it up and read it to Percy and then he translates it into Hän for me."

Still, teaching is a challenge for Henry because he doesn't have many fluent elders to converse with these days. Many of the speakers who participated in the early literacy sessions have passed away. "It's pretty hard for me because I got nobody to talk to. If two or three elders get together and tell stories, you can do it because you're used to talking the language." That's why the literacy sessions at the Language Centre are so important in helping to sustain language skills. Joseph-Rear remembers working with other fluent elders such as Clara van Bibber and Archie Roberts when they were still alive. "It was just like watching children when they worked together for the first time. Someone would say, 'Oh, jeez, I never heard that word for a long time.' Even when we come to these literacy sessions, a lot of new words come up." Those words include not just language vocabulary but place names, clan and other traditional names, songs and stories.

"It's the connection to our language and the workshops offered by the Language Centre that are keeping it going and that have really helped us," says Joseph-Rear. "I feel really good about this place." As for Henry, she describes him as "very generous" with other learners. Henry notes wryly that "it took years to get the young people to start listening. Now they ask some questions I can't answer." He and Joseph-Rear burst into laughter as he says, "They won't let me quit!"

One of those questions is what the future will be like. "I just tell them what the elders taught me," says Henry. "In 1943 I was in Old Crow. There were a lot of ducks and other animals. The elders tell me, 'See that? In the future it will all be gone.' "So now I tell the kids there's a tough time coming. If you respect the land, look after it, if you respect the animals and don't interfere with them, you might make it through. "Sometimes I want to quit, but it's hard to walk away."

This article was prepared for the Yukon Native Language Centre by Patricia Robertson.>

Promoting Gwich'in language through prayer and song

Yukon News
August 1, 2014

Gwich'in people from across the North gathered in Fairbanks, Alaska, recently for a Holy Communion service conducted entirely in Tukudh, the most traditional form of the Gwich'in language. The hymns, readings, prayers, sermon, and blessing were sung and spoken in Gwich'in. Many people traveled from Dawson City, Whitehorse, Fort McPherson and eight Alaskan communities to study and prepare for the service held at the filled-to-overflowing St. Matthew's Episcopal Church on June 12.

"It went really well," said organizer Allan Hayton of Fairbanks, a language teacher and vestry member at St. Matthew's. "Elders are worried that the Tukudh services are slipping away, so we must pick it up and begin learning and carrying it forward." This marks the first time since 2003 that a service entirely in the 19th century dialect was held at St. Matthews. Since then, many of the elders involved have passed on, such as the Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce of Old Crow and the Rev. Mardow Solomon of Fort Yukon.

William Firth and Joanne Snowshoe travelled from Fort McPherson for the event. "It was quite the journey to get there: Edmonton, Seattle, up to Fairbanks. Two long days of travel," Firth said. "We were determined to be there and participate with the group."

Firth, language manager for the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, noted the Alaskan Gwich'in people work very hard to comprehend the Tukudh dialect, which is more nearly like the Gwich'in spoken today in Canada. Hayton said, "Even our most fluent ministers like Trimble Gilbert and Mary Nathaniel and Bella Jean Savino, they still find the Tukudh challenging to read and interpret." Hayton said he relies on people like Joanne Snowshoe to guide him in pronunciation.

On the other hand, Alaskan Gwich'in shared their deep knowledge of the musical traditions. "There are still quite a few of the hymns that we don't know really well, but the Alaskans have maintained the tunes and share them with us," Firth said. "That was one thing that I found very inspirational." Gwich'in is the only Yukon native language with a tradition of literacy dating back almost 150 years. Its continuous written history makes it unique not only among Athabaskan languages but among most indigenous languages in North America.

Tukudh is the older written form. It was developed over a 40-year period starting in the 1860s through a remarkable collaboration between Archdeacon Robert McDonald, a part-Ojibwa Church of England missionary from Manitoba, and Gwich'in speakers from the N.W.T to Alaska. The translations they compiled contain features of many dialects, not just one. An indigenous Christian leadership developed that carries on today. Tukudh Bibles, hymns and prayer books remain in use. Ongoing study includes annual Gwich'in literacy sessions hosted at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse each November, attracting participants from across the North.

As with any language, Gwich'in has evolved. "The vocabulary in McDonald's time, we call it higher language as opposed to what we speak today," said Firth. Firth would like to see more research and courses into Tukudh texts, and more sharing with younger generations. "It's a huge historical document based on language," he said. "There is so much richness in this literacy tradition that people can learn from."

Hayton said he was especially pleased that Rev. Trimble Gilbert, 79, was able to travel to Fairbanks to preside and preach at the St. Matthew's service. Gilbert comes from a long tradition of Gwich'in clergy in Arctic Village, Alaska, including his father, the late Rev. James Gilbert. "He really had a lot to offer to our group during the days that we were together," Hayton said. "He's also a really powerful singer. It just made everyone else's singing that much stronger." Hayton sat down with Gilbert after the service. "Just seeing how pleased he was made it all worthwhile for me. He wants to keep the momentum going, getting together and learning."

Elder and deacon Percy Henry of Dawson City, fluent in both Gwich'in and Han, attended with his son Peter. The Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, the Rev. Scott Fisher and the Rev. Bella Jean Savino of St. Matthew's Fairbanks also participated.

Yukon Native Language Centre director John Ritter and YNLC programs co-ordinator Linda Harvey made the drive from Whitehorse to take part in the event. The language centre's role, Ritter explained, is to support all Yukon First Nation language communities in ways they identify as essential to further their languages. "Uniquely with the Gwich'in there was an entire Bible - not just the New Testament - printed in 1898," said Ritter. "By that time, the hymnal was in full use, and the prayer book was being translated." Ritter said the Gwich'in developed and passed on literacy very early on. And the message from Gwich'in communities is: "We want our younger people to know our traditions."

The fit between English pronunciation and McDonald's writing system is challenging in some respects, said Ritter, a linguist who developed a modern Gwich'in writing system for Canadian dialects in the 1970s. "The archdeacon's T is really pronounced more like a D, and his K is pronounced more like a G." In literacy workshops, Ritter said it's common for everyone to rely on an expert elder speaker such as Joanne Snowshoe to read a Tukudh sentence out loud, and for a younger person to re-transcribe that on a white board in the modern system. "The training here reflects the desire of Gwich'in people to learn the traditional language," he said. "YNLC provides a place where people come together and share what they know of the Tukudh tradition."

The question of why many Gwich'in today are dedicated to preserving texts from a religious tradition that some might feel was imposed on them is a delicate one. Hayton said he knows his people had spirituality and deep connection with the universe before Christianity, and believes they complement each other in many ways. "For me," said Hayton, "it just reminds me of growing up in Arctic Village. The church services were all in Gwich'in. It was all Tukudh. It reminds me of all of our elders."

This article was prepared for the Yukon Native Language Centre by Patti Flather.

A Gwich'in communion

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
June 14, 2014

all photos by JR Ancheta, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

A communion service spoken entirely in the Gwich'in dialect of Tukudh saw a packed congregation Thursday at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 1029 First Ave., in downtown Fairbanks. Reverends from Alaska and Canada, as well as a deacon, joined to officiate the service. Programs were made available to the public so non-Tukudh speakers could follow along in English.

Allan Hayton, 45, a Vestry member at St. Matthew's who is originally from Arctic Village, helped organize the event. "It's a long, proud legacy that our ancestors and forebears have left for us, and I love our language, and to hear a service in our language is amazing," Hayton told the News-Miner last week.

Gwich'in is one of 47 separate Athabascan languages and is spoken in 15 communities throughout Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The Tukudh dialect predates the Gwich'in translation to English.

A similar service entirely in Gwich'in was held in 2003, a 10-year anniversary service was postponed last year because members from Canada weren't able to cross the border.

Alaskan attendees came from Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon), Viihtaii (Venetie), Vashraii K'oo (Arctic Village), Jalgitsik (Chalkyitsik), Tsee Duu (Beaver), Deenduu (Birch Creek), Danzhit Haiinlaii (Circle), Tanan (Fairbanks) and Eagle. Canadian contributors traveled from Vun Tut (Old Crow), Teetł'it Zheh (Fort McPherson), Dawson and Whitehorse.

Article by Robin Wood, 459-7510,

Visitors expected from eight villages, Canada to attend Holy Communion Service spoken in Gwich'in

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
June 11, 2014

all photos by Eric Engman, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

A Holy Communion Service spoken entirely in the Gwich'in dialect of Tukudh will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 1029 First Avenue. Reverends from Alaska and Canada, as well as a deacon, will join to officiate the service. Programs will be available, so people can follow along in English. Allan Hayton, 45, is a Vestry member at St. Matthew's, and helped organize the event. Originally from Arctic Village, Hayton expects about 40 people to participate in Thursday's ceremony. They come from eight Alaska and four Canadian towns and villages. "It's a long, proud legacy that our ancestors and forebears have left for us, and I love our language, and to hear a service in our language is amazing," Hayton said.

Gwich'in is one of 47 separate Athabascan languages and is spoken in 15 communities throughout Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The Tukudh dialect predates the Gwich'in translation to English. A similar service entirely in Gwich'in was held in 2003, a 10-year anniversary service was postponed last year because members from Canada weren't able to cross the border.

Beginning in the 1860s, Archdeacon Robert McDonald spent more than 40 years translating The Bible — both Old and New testaments — as well as more than 200 hymns, into Gwich'in. The Rev. Trimble Gilbert, from Arctic Village, opened an introductory meeting yesterday with The Lord's Prayer and blessings in Tukudh. A chorus of 15 people joined in — bowed heads and closed eyes — the Parish room of St. Matthew's resonated with the complex and ancient language.

Because of the proliferation of English, Gilbert, 79, alternates between English and Tukudh while leading his sermons in Arctic Village. Gilbert said he remembers when only a few services per year were held in canvas tents, always entirely in Gwich'in. "Language is a gift giver to us, and when we talk to each other (the) meaning is real strong," Gilbert said of the connection he gets from traditional communication. Gilbert speaks with his three sons solely in Tukudh.

After prayer and song, participants introduced themselves, almost entirely in their native tongue. There was Joanne Snowshoe, 74, who carries with her a Gwich'in Bible and book of hymns—broken bindings and loose pages evidence decades of heavy use—handed down from her mother. Snowshoe, from Fort McPherson, the Northwest Territories, is participating in the service as a lay reader. She said she remembers reading the gospel in Gwich'in every Sunday as a child. Snowshoe and the Rev. Bella Jean Savino, of Fairbanks, sing Tukudh hymns over the telephone every Saturday.

Savino, 69, originally from Arctic Village and Fort Yukon, also recalled attending weekly service as a child. "Nobody stayed home," Savino said. Savino, who rarely has opportunities to speak Gwich'in in Fairbanks, said she's grateful for the service. "We learn a lot from each other," she said.

During study and practice, Hayton emphasizes the importance of connecting to the audience, telling celebrants what to convey, "we feel it in our hearts and it means something to us." Regarding Thursday's service, Hayton said, "Come expecting a celebration. We're going to have a good time, worship and celebrate in our language." The service will be followed by a cover dish.

Alaskan attendees came from: Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon), Viihtaii (Venetie), Vashraii K'oo (Arctic Village), Jalgitsik (Chalkyitsik), Tsee Duu (Beaver), Deenduu (Birch Creek), Danzhit Haiinlaii (Circle), Tanan (Fairbanks) and Eagle. Canadian contributors traveled from: Vun Tut (Old Crow), Teetł'it Zheh (Fort McPherson), Dawson and Whitehorse.

Article by Robin Wood, 459-7510,

College graduates 5 First Nation language instructors

Yukon News
June 11, 2014

photo Mary Allison, YNLC

Doris Allen has the rare gift of being proficient in teaching two distinct Yukon aboriginal languages, Gwich'in and Southern Tutchone. She grew up in Old Crow, so Gwich'in is her mother tongue. She learned Southern Tutchone through many years of residence in Haines Junction and Klukshu with her late husband, Grand Chief Harry Allen, and his extended family. She's one of five language instructors active in communities throughout the territory who recently graduated from programs offered by the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College in Whitehorse. Allen was the only instructor this year to receive her diploma, in the ceremony at the Yukon Arts Centre on May 16. "I worked hard for that, I really put every effort I have to do that, so I'm really proud of myself," Allen says. Allen earned the two-year diploma after completing her three-year certificate at the language centre.

This year's certificate graduates are Bella Bresse of Carmacks, Kathy Magun of Watson Lake, Cresenthia Melancon of Mayo and Marion Schafer of Old Crow. "They're all very dedicated to their students and have a strong commitment to the revitalization of their languages," says Mary Jane Allison, acting language programs coordinator.

Allen moved to Haines Junction as an adult, where she joined St. Elias School as an educational assistant. Living in Southern Tutchone territory, Allen says she decided to take night classes three times weekly in that language for an entire winter. "That landed me at my job teaching Southern Tutchone," she says.

Allen also taught Gwich'in and assisted with Southern Tutchone in Whitehorse high schools. Last fall she returned to St. Elias, teaching Southern Tutchone in K-3 classes. "I love working with younger students. They're just so eager to learn and so easy to work with," she says.

As part of her diploma, Allen completed a special project. St. Elias students created individual storybooks which Allen translated into Southern Tutchone. With the kindergartens, Allen led group projects on big pieces of cardboard with winter and summer themes "so they could see it on paper - they could imagine it." She added Southern Tutchone names for everything from animals, to snow on the mountains, to flowers and berries.

Kathy Magun, a Kaska teacher at Johnson Elementary, says her language is an important part of who she is as a Kaska First Nation person and residential school survivor. "Kaska language was my first language so that really helped me tremendously in my training along the way," she says. When she began working with Kaska again, Magun says "it was like I reawakened the language that was waiting dormant within me."

Magun says some people question the value of learning aboriginal languages, but she says education in one's minority language is a basic human right. She says various studies show numerous lifelong benefits for children who learn a second language early in life - including improved reasoning and problem-solving and ability to learn additional languages. Magun adds that First Nations children who are connected to their cultural heritage and ancestry in school have stronger self-esteem, which is vital for overall learning. Magun says she appreciates all languages and rejoices in hearing them spoken. As for Kaska, "we have a really kind language," she says. She recounts her young students asking her how to say "shut up" in Kaska. She explained to them that there's no phrasing for that. "I found my language is gentle, healing is I guess the word," she says. "It was kind of emotional for me to walk into the arts centre with a cap and gown, but it was also a special day for me," says Marion Schafer of Old Crow, who teaches Gwich'in at Chief Zheh Gittlit School. Three of her grandchildren were there supporting her. "I felt so proud that day for completing my three years," Shafer adds.

When she arrived back in Old Crow, she received graduation cards that co-worker Randall Kendi and the students had made. "With the Grades 1, 2 and 3 it said, `I love you, Mrs. Schafer, you are a good teacher and congratulations on a job well done.' Oh, I took that to heart." "What really helps me in my teaching is my fluency," says Schafer, whose parents spoke Gwich'in to her growing up.

Cresenthia Melancon, 25, is among the younger generation of language instructors. She didn't grow up speaking Northern Tutchone but took school language classes taught by her grandmother Catherine Germaine. "At school, I always enjoyed going to class because I could see her teach me," Melancon says. "She's also my inspiration." Melancon works part-time at JV Clark School in Mayo and says she still seeks her grandmother's language tips. She says she incorporates plenty of games into her classes. "That's the best way to learn language, when you incorporate fun with it," she says. "I don't want language class to be boring!" Melancon says she also speaks Northern Tutchone at home with her two-year-old son.

Besides her work at JV Clark, she's teaching a three-week language course this month with elder Mary Battaja through Na Cho Nyak Dun First Nation. Melancon says she plans to pursue her diploma next with the language centre. Her advice to young people considering a career in native language instruction: "I'd say, 'Go for it!'"

That's an endorsement welcomed by Mary Jane Allison and her language centre colleague Linda Harvey, the urban programs coordinator. Allison, 29, was the first native language instructor coming from the Yukon public school system. "I would like to see more people enroll into the entry-level certificate program," Allison says. Allison and Harvey say the language centre offers a unique learning experience in a small group setting.

Harvey says she visits each certificate trainee twice each year in their community. Trainees also attend fall and spring workshops at the language centre, plus a literacy workshop focusing on their language. She says trainees must find a practicum placement in a school or community setting and work with a mentor or "speaker model," but the language centre provides support to trainees who face challenges. "We don't teach the language," Harvey says. "But they learn it as they're learning to teach," Allison says.

Since 1986, the language centre, administered by the Council of Yukon First Nations and funded by the Government of Yukon, has produced 103 Certificate graduates (85 from the Yukon) and 34 Diploma graduates (31 from the Yukon). Ten instructors have gone on to complete Associate of Applied Science degrees in native language education with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Travels to the Alseck by Edward J. Glave - New book reveals early Yukon exploration

Yukon News
January 10, 2014

A Yukon News book review by History Hunter Michael Gates, originally published January 10, 2014.

Hot on the heels of the Whitehorse history book comes a fascinating volume that will be of interest to many Yukon history lovers. Travels to the Alseck by Edward J. Glave is edited by the sterling team of Julie Cruikshank, Doug Hitch and John Ritter. It is the account of two exploration trips made to the southwest Yukon in 1890 and 1891 by the aforementioned Glave and his sidekick, Jack Dalton.

I have a personal connection to this account. In 1971 and 1972, during my first summers in the Yukon, I travelled over much of the same landscape as these two white men, although I did not know it until later.

Glave was an Englishman who, during an age when class structure dominated British society, turned to the exploration of faraway places to advance himself. Starting in 1883, he served for three years at an isolated outpost in the Congo under the tutelage of famed British explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Glave, who described himself as "a man who relishes a task for its bigness, and takes to it with a fierce joy," then spent another three years on a riverboat for an ivory trading company on the upper Congo River. This and his later accounts of travel in Africa are said to have been the inspiration for Joseph Conrad's famed novel, Heart of Darkness.

In 1890, Glave was in America, where he was engaged by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper as a member of a party that was sent to explore the remote regions of Alaska. This was the beginning of the narrative that is detailed in Travels to the Alseck. The series of articles published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper are reproduced in this volume, followed by the text of two articles that were featured in the highly regarded Century Magazine after his second trip the following year.

In 1890, Leslie's party travelled up the Chilkat River valley, and crossed the coastal mountains at Kusawa Lake. There, the party split in two. Glave and Dalton turned westward and trekked over to the Shakwak valley, eventually navigating the Alseck River (today known as the Tatshenshini) to the Pacific Coast. The remainder of the expedition party continued down the Yukon River, ultimately reaching Alaska.

The following year, after failing to find sponsors, Glave self-financed a second trip into Alseck country, again accompanied by Dalton, this time using pack horses. Following the route of the present-day Haines Highway, they reached the northernmost point of the Tatshenshini River, continued north, crossed the Dezadeash River, passed Kloo Lake, and then retraced their steps to the coast after nearly drowning in Kluane Lake.

But there is more to this story than Glave's articles reveal. What makes this book more fascinating is that the editors incorporated the diary entries kept by Glave from his unpublished notebooks, which are now housed in the archives at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. These faded diary entries are made on the tattered pages in Glave's nearly illegible scrawl. They include information never before published, which throws light on Glave's travels through Kluane country.

Cruikshank provides insightful commentary about the narratives, both public and private, contrasting the 1890 trip with the 1891 venture. Unlike his contemporaries, she notes, Glave "sought out indigenous inhabitants, did his best to learn local languages, recorded names of those he interviewed and incorporated them into his reports."

The published account of the second journey takes on the more traditional narrative voice of the period, and masks the fact that a disillusioned Glave considered his self-financed trip into the wilds of the Yukon a failure. They nearly drowned, lost much of their equipment, including his faulty map-making instruments, and failed to find mineral wealth. Cruikshank assumes that his true motive behind his Alaskan journeys was to position himself for a return to Africa.

Not mentioned in Cruikshank's analysis, I note, are Glave's intriguing reference to an unnamed love interest back in New York City, and the implication that fame and fortune from his 1891 exploration would establish his reputation and provide economic security so that he might win her hand in marriage.

Place names are important to Glave's narrative. In order to connect the names with the correct places, Doug Hitch analyzes Glave's notes and map references. In doing so, he establishes clearly the route followed by Glave and Dalton on both of their adventures. The notebook entries are illustrated with numerous annotated sketch maps in this volume, accompanied with interpretation by Hitch, of the route using contemporary maps of the region.

Fortunately, some of the photos of the 1891 journey survive, and are included in this volume, along with the original drawings rendered from these photographs, and modern-day photos taken of the same views. These validate Hitch's interpretation of the route followed by the two adventurers.

Glave took particular interest in the traditional place names of the region he visited and recorded these in his notes. In addition, he recorded the personal names of those he met, traditional Tlingit and Athabascan words and phrases, and word lists in both Tlingit and Southern Tutchone. Of particular note is how modern geographers have displaced traditional places names with contemporary ones, or assigned traditional place names to the wrong features. This volume documents these and sets the record straight.

The tributary today known as the Blanchard River, for instance, was originally noted as Tarjansini by Glave, That native name (Tatshenshini) was assigned, by 1900, to the Alsek. The name Alsek was assigned to what was known traditionally as the Kaska Wurlch (Kaskawulsh). As Cruikshank noted, "Shifting names created cascading confusion for local residents… local elders still express feelings of displacement as their country was renamed around them - ironically using their own names."

The text is divided into three main sections; one for the 1890 expedition, and two for the 1891 venture. Each includes a section by Doug Hitch analyzing Glave's notes and interpreting the route that they followed.

Travels to the Alseck, which is published by the Yukon Native Language Centre, and can be obtained at their office at Yukon College, is hardbound, with 408 glossy pages of text, profusely illustrated with 108 photos and drawings, and 85 maps. It includes a bibliography and index.

For anyone interested in the history of the Kluane region, this book is a must read.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton's Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at


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