Native-language teacher honored with potlatch

Lucy Wren

When Yukon Native Language Centre instructor Lucy Wren retired recently, her students at Carcross School sang her a Tlingit song and gave her a poem they had written entirely in Tlingit.

That seems a fitting tribute for Wren, who was also honored with a Commissioner's Award in 1998 for her many years of teaching and promoting Tlingit language and culture.

Her retirement last June at the age of 83 marked the end of a remarkable career stretching back nearly twenty years.

The well-known Yukon elder, whose traditional Tlingit name is Ghuch Tla (Wolf Mother), was known simply as Grandma to generations of Carcross schoolchildren, native and non-native alike.

It's a role she misses now that she's no longer in the classroom on a regular basis.

"I miss the kids in school, I get used to them many years," she explains. "I talked to them every day."

"She even had a rocking chair there (in the classroom), she used to sit in the chair with all the kids out in front of her," says Rose Pattison, Wren's daughter.

Pattison, along with other family members, staff and students, and invited guests, was among the 125 people who attended the special retirement potlatch for Wren held at the school last month.

We owe her a great debt of gratitude because she was not only teaching her language but also her culture to the kids, and respect for their elders," says Carcross School principal Brian Shanahan.

"She treated all kids the same, whether they were First Nations or not. Kids were just kids to her.

"She was a wonderful resource, a walking history book, an amazing woman."

In fact Wren was one of the pioneers in teaching native language and culture, beginning with dance and language lessons for adults in the late 1970s and then becoming a teacher at the school.

Margaret Workman, now Southern Tutchone language specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre, was also a pioneer language teacher in Haines Junction and remembers that there was no teacher training in those early days.

"I found it quite difficult because there were no materials, no curriculum development, no lesson planning," she says.

"We just had to do it on our own and ask ourselves, 'How did my mother teach me?' "

Wren taught classes from kindergarten to Grade 9, assisted over the years by her granddaughters Virginia Kemble, Mary-Ann Whelan, and Marlene Smith, who continues to teach at the school.

The team teaching model she inaugurated--pairing a fluent older speaker with a younger and less fluent one-- has since been incorporated as the standard in the teacher training now offered by the Yukon Native Language Centre.

When that training became available through Yukon College starting in 1983, Lucy Wren was a member of the first graduating class, completing the Certificate program in 1986.

Jo-Anne Johnson, now rural programs coordinator with the YNLC, was then a teacher trainee herself and remembers that, even at age 66, Wren was a role model for the younger students.

"She was outstanding in sharing her language," says Johnson.

"She could support some of the younger people because she could remember so much of their languages as well as her own.

"She had a twinkle in her eyes because she was understanding all these younger people when they spoke."

In her role as coordinator with the rural schools, Johnson later became a regular visitor to Wren's classroom.

"I would go out and observe, and there would be the rocking chair for Lucy and the kids would sit around in a semi-circle," explains Johnson.

"It was a nice atmosphere because she was the grandma figure for the kids, and nowadays not everyone has a grandmother. "The kids really seemed to enjoy that."

Over the years Wren has continued to work with the YNLC in helping to provide cultural and linguistic information for the benefit of other language instructors attending the Tlingit literacy sessions.

She has also been involved in the development of teaching materials at the centre because of her fluency in Tagish as well as her native Tlingit.

(She also speaks Southern Tutchone and understands Tahltan, Kaska, and Northern Tutchone).

She has recorded seven computer versions of the centre's story booklets, in both Tlingit and Tagish, and has also recorded the tapes that accompany the Tagish and Tlingit self-teaching language lessons.

Born in the Carcross area in 1917 to Susie and Billy Atlin, Wren was the fourth of five children, a member of the Dakhl'awedi clan, brought up on the land in the traditional way.

Her maternal grandmother, Annie Joe, was the sister of Skookum Jim, the discoverer of gold at Rabbit Creek in 1896.

She remembers journeying with her family to Bennett Lake, Tagish, and Marsh Lake to pick berries, hunt, and fish, travelling by dogteam in winter and rowboat in summer.

"From Tagish we have to walk all the way to Squanga Lake to get that little Squanga whitefish," she explains, adding that a particular creek there "would be just full when they ran."

"When we were kids we put on our boots, we made a big fire by the creek, and the fish like the fire, they go right by the fire where it's bright in the water.

"We grab them with our hands and throw them to the beach at spawning time.

"About midnight Uncle Tagish Jim (would say), 'You kids better leave that fish alone now. You catch too many fish.'

"In the morning they make us pack all the fish to the camp. I hate to pack fish but I sure like to catch them!"

Although Wren's two older sisters and an older brother were sent to the residential school in Carcross, Wren herself was kept home to help her mother, hearing traditional stories told by her mother and especially her grandmother.

Later, Wren married Scotty James and raised nine children of her own, six boys and three girls.

She's lost count of the numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, although it's close to 100.

But she hasn't lost her wicked sense of humor, recounting a recent meeting with two young non-native boys, former pupils of hers, in a store in Whitehorse.

"They come in with their mum to the store and they run right to me," said Wren, chuckling at the memory.

"They say, 'How are you, Grandma?', (in the) Indian way. So I tell them I'm fine.

"And then another Indian woman says, 'Lucy, are they your grandchildren?' I tell her yes.

"And she says, 'Holy, they look like white kids!'

"The whole school, white kids and all, they call me Grandma."