Native Language workshop attracts Gwich'in young people

WHITEHORSE, YUKON - When her son Nicolas was born in July last year, Linda Netro decided she wanted to learn more of her native Gwich'in language.

"I wanted to speak the language to him," Netro says, "so therefore I had to take some sort of initiative in learning more of the language myself." Netro, who works as special assistant to Robert Bruce Jr., MLA for the Vuntut Gwich'in, moved to Whitehorse from Old Crow as a child in the early 1970s.

Although her parents were fluent, she didn't learn to speak the language herself. However, she grew up hearing the language as a child in Old Crow, and says "it makes a world of difference."

"If I had grown up in an area where I never heard the language being spoken, I think it would be more difficult for me to learn."

She wanted to expose her son to the language too, and phoned the Yukon Native Language Centre to ask if she might bring him with her to the next Gwich'in language workshop. That led to her involvement in organizing a Gwich'in workshop specifically for beginning learners.

Netro approached F.H. Collins principal Lee Kubica about participation by Gwich'in high school students in Whitehorse. "He was extremely supportive," says Netro. "It wasn't mandatory, this was a choice. We wanted people to come who wanted to learn." Netro also contacted Gwich'in students at Yukon College, and followed up with phone calls and with radio advertising on CHON-FM.

And last week Netro found herself, for the first time ever, helping to teach the workshop as well. "I was really nervous," says Netro, "because this was my first time being a part of organizing and doing some instruction." A total of twenty-two people attended the three-day workshop, including Gwich'in elders Betty Sjodin, Martha Snowshoe, Mary Decker, Laura Firth, Stringer Charlie, Clara Linklater, and Hannah Netro -- Linda Netro's mother -- and YNLC Gwich'in language specialist Mary Jane Kunnizzi.

"The fact that we had all these youths in this class is incredibly impressive," says Netro, "and we had steady attendance." As a beginning learner herself, Netro knows how much commitment that requires. "Learning a language is tough, it involves a lot of concentration. I began right at the beginning too and I know how much work it takes."

Students participated in a variety of activities, including listening exercises to help make distinctions between similar sounds, conversation lessons, and reading practice. They also translated Christmas greetings and songs into Gwich'in, played games designed to teach the language, and studied the meaning of traditional Gwich'in family names.

"The students we worked with were very keen, they participated in activities, they wanted to learn," Netro says. "Every little thing you learn is a step toward the language." By the second day, when people had had a chance to settle in, Netro worked to integrate the class by having elders and students sit together rather than in separate groups.

"You have to learn from your elders," says Netro. "The elders are the language. So I mixed the elders and the students together. The elders were very supportive because they realized that the students have to hear it from them. And the students said they were encouraged by the elders."

For Boyd Benjamin, a Grade 11 student from Old Crow who attends F.H. Collins, the games were the best part of the workshop. "There was the handshake game, where every time you hear a certain sound you find a different partner and shake their hand," he explained. "It's hard, you have to really listen."

Like Netro, Benjamin was exposed to the language as a child in Old Crow but later moved outside with his family for seven years, and now only visits Old Crow in the holidays. When he was asked by the counsellor at F.H. Collins if he wanted to go to the workshop, "I didn't really think," he says. "I said okay, it's my own language, I'll go."

Now, however, he's going to buy Gwich'in language instruction booklets and tapes from the Language Centre so he can continue learning. And he'd like to return if more such workshops are held. "I had lots of fun, I enjoyed myself, and I learned a lot," he said.

Participating elder Betty Sjodin also lost her language as a child after her father died and she was sent to an Anglican mission school in Aklavik. Originally from the Fort McPherson area, where her father, the Rev. John Martin, was an Anglican minister, she later attended another mission school in Sault Ste. Marie, where no-one else spoke Gwich'in.

By the time she returned to Aklavik in 1956, she still understood the language but had to slowly learn to speak it again. "As I'm getting older it seems to be coming back quicker," she said. "It's probably embedded in there somewhere and it's slowly coming back."

Now, as a resource person for the Gwich'in language workshops, Sjodin is still learning about her language. The most recent workshop has helped her rediscover the meaning of her family's original Gwich'in surname.

"It's overwhelming," she says, "when you find out that even your name has a history. Because I left home so young, I didn't know my dad's real Gwich'in name. It was completely changed." Sjodin, who is in her sixties, sometimes attends a full-day Gwich'in language session at the Centre before going to her full-time job at Kaushee's Place, the women's transition home. "It's tiring but if you enjoy it doesn't bother you," she says.

"It's rewarding to see the young people get into it and to see them learning to spell the words and sentences in their own language. They're enthusiastic and they're genuine and they're eager to learn. I can't get enough of it."

"Just sitting there and listening to the younger generation is wonderful, because they are our future," she adds. "If you teach them to love their language, to love who they are, I think they'll do all right."

It's a sentiment that Linda Netro might echo as she speaks Gwich'in to her young son. "What I can offer my son is language," she says. "Since I started speaking to him in Gwich'in, it helped me inside, because you have to feel comfortable to be able to do it." "For every word I learn," she adds, "to me it's growth."