Yukon Native Language Centre Occupies a Unique Niche

In a quiet room tucked away in a corner of Yukon College, a group of First Nations elders are engaged in a vital enterprise -- speaking the place names for their traditional territory into a Macintosh computer. "Sound files" of the names are being used to compile an interactive map of the Yukon which will allow users to hear the pronunciations of native place names.

Meanwhile, in a nearby classroom filled with language teaching materials, a group of instructors from the Yukon and Alaska are participating in a demonstration lesson taught by a Hän-speaking instructor from Dawson City.

In an adjacent computer room, other native language instructors are practising the keyboard skills necessary to use computer-based talking books in their classroom, while in the central activity room a staff member transcribes Southern Tutchone clan names of a family tree onto large sheets of chart paper.

These activities are typical of the recent daily routine at the Yukon Native Language Centre. During September and October, staff and elders have organized three separate teacher-training sessions, played host to visitors from Utah and Alaska, presented a demonstration at the recent teachers convention, and planned native language literacy sessions to be held before Christmas break.

"This is starting out as the busiest year for us yet," notes Margaret Workman, a Southern Tutchone Language Specialist who has been at YNLC since 1984. She adds, "We have three new trainees for the Whitehorse school programs, and new instructors will be recruited for some of the rural programs as well. All this translates into more training requests."

In this lofty, light-filled area of the Commons wing of Yukon College -- designed by its architects to reflect a First Nations atmosphere -- staff, teachers, trainees, visitors, and elders have created a vibrant space dedicated to the preservation of Yukon native languages.

That was the idea when the Centre was originally designed in 1985 by Carlsberg Jackson Partners as part of the future college. Centre staff as well as CYI officials were active participants in planning sessions with the architects, and its significance for the First Nations community was acknowledged in their report.

"The collection, preservation and teaching of indigenous native languages is vitally important to native development in Yukon," they said.

They added that "finding the appropriate location, character, imagery and ambiance for the Native Language Centre presented a creative challenge."

But they met that challenge by reproducing a First Nations atmosphere in the physical space of the Centre, stating that "the ceiling height, the wood finishes and the interior layout of spaces work together" to create a harmonious atmosphere which permits several distinct activities to take place simultaneously.

They also listened closely to the requirements that Centre staff had outlined.

"We needed a classroom area large enough for move-around activities, and a buffer zone where laminating and cutting and pasting takes place," explains Centre director John Ritter. "We also needed an adequate storeroom, a sound recording studio, a place to keep slides and photos, and a quiet place to record elders and work on maps."

Fortunately the lengthy planning process resulted in the YNLC space which is still being used for the purposes outlined fifteen years ago.

"A whole array of activities can take place here today because the planning process was so thorough," Ritter adds. "Fortunately, we are able to keep up with most of the requests that come our way, even though our resources are sometimes stretched to the limit."

Beginning in 1986 with the first 13 graduates of the Native Language Instructor Certificate Program, the Centre has seen a total of 62 graduates from Certificate program and 18 graduates of the Diploma program.

The Certificate course requires three years of training and teaching experience to complete,while the Diploma course requires an additional two years of advanced work.

Since 1996 a number of the graduates have gone on to complete the Associate of Applied Science degree program offered jointly by Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Our students participate in college graduation every year," says Programs Coordinator Jo-Anne Johnson. "All the Yukon College credits are transferable for those who go on to do the University of Alaska degree."

The Centre is also a service provider to students in the college's Yukon Native Teacher Education Program, giving First Nations students who will one day teach in Yukon schools an opportunity to learn about Yukon native languages. Centre staff have also developed and taught courses in Southern Tutchone and Gwich'in.

The Yukon Native Language Centre occupies a unique niche, connected to the college and offering college-accredited programs, but administered by CYFN.

"The Language Centre has been a part of CYFN and CYI since 1977. This program is devoted to our languages and cultures, so it is administered and guided by the First Nations as a whole," says Grand Chief Albert James. "Every one of our First Nations benefits from the work of YNLC."

In recent years the Centre has seen a steadily increasing demand for its services in addition to its three main areas of activity -- native language teacher training, materials development, and research.

Requests for assistance in various translation projects, for example, come frequently from First Nations groups around the Yukon.

The Centre also plays host to visiting educators, linguists, and First Nations speakers from outside the Yukon, most recently a Navajo-speaking bilingual educator from Utah.

That's because the Centre's methods of training teachers and developing curriculum are becoming models for other native language programs outside the Yukon, according to Alaskan educator Dr. Cynthea Ainsworth, who is helping to establish a similar teacher training program in her own state.

Such increased recognition, along with the delivery of the Centre's main programs, means that staff time and the Centre's physical space are fully utilized and that those wanting language training may sometimes have to be put on a waiting list.

But for Gertie Tom, a founding elder of the Centre, the constant hum of activity is a source of pride as well as a realization of her hopes when she first became involved in 1977. "When we started out, there weren't many people working with native languages. But a lot of people wanted to do something to keep the languages alive. Now, even though I'm retired, I see all these young people coming along and supporting each other with their languages. This is what we've been working for all these year!"