Bringing native languages into home and office

FIRST... Trish Hirsch, right, will graduate this spring with the distiction of being the first of her generation to learn her native language through school programs

At 23, Trish Hirsch is a member of the first generation of First Nations to learn their native language through school programs. Hirsch, who will graduate in June from the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program, currently works for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation in Whitehorse and attends language classes three times a week at the band office.

But she began learning Southern Tutchone as a student in the Athapaskan language program at F.H. Collins with then-teacher Margaret Workman.

Now Hirsch herself is developing her native language instructional skills as one of 17 participants in a recent training session at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

The session was designed to provide support for community-based language planning by offering training for both Southern and Northern Tutchone community language instructors.

Community language programs currently exist for preschoolers, K-12 students, and adults, and range from Headstart programs to First Nation office lessons, evening classes, immersion classes, and independent study using language lessons and tapes.

Topics covered at the training session included basic language drills and listening exercises as well as instructional techniques and guidelines for lesson planning.

Participants were also introduced to active methods for literacy, using a variety of games and flashcards.

"There were five of us in the younger group, so we had to play the games, directed by the elders," laughs Hirsch.

She was initially nervous about doing practice teaching in front of the class, she says.

"Being a cautious learner, I felt, oh no, I'm going to get laughed at -- going up there and actually teaching a language lesson to elders who speak it fluently," she says.

"But I found that really helpful. They were so well organized and accepting."

Hirsch, who grew up in Whitehorse with her aunt, explains that "I never heard the language growing up, really. Just a few words."

Her grandmother, Marge Jackson, lives in Haines Junction and speaks the language fluently, but "I never really understood," says Hirsch.

"Then I took classes in high school, and that's how I learned to speak it."

Now, she says, "I find when I'm around it I start to remember things that I learned in high school, when I was getting pretty good at it and understanding a lot."

One of the other members of the younger group was Gordie Joe, 39, who works in Human Resources for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation in Haines Junction.

Joe studied business administration at Yukon College and began his present job last October, when he "jumped at the chance" to attend the Southern Tutchone lessons offered to band employees.

He attends half-hour morning lessons taught by instructor Vivian Smith, a graduate of YNLC's Certificate program, and jokes that, as the only man in the group, "they delay the class if I'm not there on time."

He also attends evening sessions twice a week with instructor Bessie Gordon.

"If I worked in Whitehorse I wouldn't have the opportunity that I do in Haines Junction," says Joe.

"I've always been interested in the language, but I've never had the opportunity, because I've always worked."

As a child Joe spent his summers in Klukshu, where he remembers listening to his grandmother, Jessie Joe of Dalton Post, talking to the other elders, including Bessie Allen and Bessie Crow.

"When we were kids she used to talk to us," he says. "But I was never around it often enough, and I lost it."

Joe was full of admiration for the instructors of the training session, including Southern Tutchone language specialist Margaret Workman, rural programs co-ordinator Jo-Anne Johnson, YNLC director John Ritter, and native language instructors Linda Harvey and Bertha Moose, as well as special guest Gertie Tom.

"They were on top of everything," he says.

"It was pretty intense, and the first day I had so much information to retain. But now I can go back to the community and participate more fully in the language workshops."

Both Hirsch and Joe say their ultimate goal is to speak their language fluently.

"It's right in the mission statement for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, to be culturally aware, so they're following that as a First Nation government," Joe says of the language lessons offered daily at the band office.

"I think the language identifies who we are. It's part of our culture. Everything else ties in with the language."

Hirsch notes that it's very important for her generation to learn the language, because there's only one generation left of fluent speakers.

During the workshop, she says, "we were always referring back to the elders and the elders could tell us about the language.

'But pretty soon we're not going to have the elders to rely on, so it's important that our generation knows how to write the language as well as speak it so that everyone can be documenting what they hear as they hear it."

Hirsch herself learned to write as well as speak the language in high school, and found that very helpful in the workshop.

"I knew how to spell the words, just by listening to the sounds," she says. The training workshop was the first Hirsch has attended as an adult, although she remembers attending with her Grade 10 native language class.

"I just thought it was important because if the opportunity ever came up to have to teach it, then it's nice to know I can," she explains.

Both Hirsch and Joe found it valuable to hear the different dialects of each language and discover that they were able to understand, even though individual words may not sound exactly the same in each dialect.

"My biggest concern is that I learned the Aishihik dialect from Margaret Workman, while my grandma's from Klukshu," says Hirsch.

"So there's little differences and I find that difficult at times, wanting to speak to my grandma and worried that she might be mad.

"But I noticed that Margaret and my auntie Mary, who speaks the Klukshu dialect, could sit there and carry on a conversation."

Hirsch and Joe were also impressed with YNLC's many resources, after participants at the training session spent an afternoon being introduced to the Centre's computer books, a Southern Tutchone CD ROM on place names and the Centre's information-filled website.

Joe was particularly impressed with the YNLC's extensive resource library, and would like to see a similarly comprehensive library in Haines Junction.

Hirsch would like to see language immersion offered in the communities. "The biggest problem right now is that kids are offered Southern Tutchone or Tlingit or whatever in school, but when they get homes their parents aren't speaking it, so they're not getting that reinforcement," she explains.

"I think classes like the ones that are offered at night are really good if parents are willing to take the time to learn."

Both of them can imagine teaching the language in ten years' time, although Hirsch says that "I'd like to get to a level where we don't have to teach it."

In the meantime Joe says that "if you really want to learn it, you're going to show up and take advantage of it, and that's what I've done.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, to be able to learn and speak my own language."