Gwich’in workshop illuminates written tradition

TRADITION... Rev. Hannah Alexie of Fort McPherson, NWT, with assembled choir at a recent Tukudh communion Service held at Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse.

“I think sometimes you have a little dream, eh? And I always dreamed that I would someday relearn my language.”

Shirley Kyikavichik is a soft-spoken elder from Ft. McPherson, a first-time participant in a recent Gwich’in language workshop held at the Yukon Native Language Centre. It was attended by nearly 40 Gwich’in speakers from across Alaska, NWT, and the Yukon.

Like many of her generation she attended residential school and lost much of her fluency because she was forbidden to speak her language.

She's thrilled about the opportunity to attend the workshop, especially because the four-day session focuses on the traditional texts and hymns of the Gwich’in liturgical tradition, written in an older form known as Tukudh over 100 years ago.

The Gwich’in take great pride in their liturgical heritage, which is unique among the other Athapaskan languages of North America because it has a continuous written history dating back to the 1860s.

That's when a Church of England missionary named Rev. Robert McDonald began collaborating with Gwich’in speakers in Alaska and later the NWT to develop the early written version of Gwich’in.

For elders like Kyikavichik, that tradition connects her with her parents and grandparents, many of whom learned to read and write using the books produced by McDonald and his translators.

“I remember going to church services with my mother, and she'd have her prayerbook open, and she'd show me where,” says Kyikavichik.

Her father was also spiritual, a man she remembers as “a caring person” who would visit the sick in order to pray with them and who sometimes led services himself.

“I remember my dad carrying on the service when we were up on the mountains hunting for caribou -- he would have his Bible and the hymnbooks, and they would all gather in one tent,” Kyikavichik says.

Now, thanks to the workshop, she's following the prayerbook with greater understanding and accuracy and calls the sessions“an eye-opener”.

“I'm learning the language better here, because before I used to try and follow it in the prayerbook with no English to compare it with,” she explains.

“There were some words that I didn't know how to pronounce, but with the instructor saying it in Gwich’in and us repeating after her, it's coming, it's making more sense.”

Kyikavichik grew up in the traditional way with her parents and eleven brothers and sisters along the Road River, 50 miles from Ft. McPherson.

“I spoke the language fluently, apparently, but my words didn't come out properly, so I spoke a comical Gwich’in, I'm told,” she says.

Both parents believed in learning, so her mother taught them Gwich’in while they were out on the land, while her father encouraged their formal education.

“He always told us, 'You've got the best of both worlds,' because we were able to go out on the land and we could go into Inuvik and Edmonton,” she says.

Kyikavichik trained as a nursing assistant in Calgary and later worked at the hospital in Inuvik for 31 years before retiring to Ft. McPherson last year.

“My language is not really fluent, but I knew how to carry on a conversation because I had to ask some of the patients questions about their health,” she says.

“To do that I had to ask people, 'How do you say this and that?' I had to write it down the way it sounded to me, and every now and then I would repeat it until it came back to me.”

In the workshop, she says,“When you make a mistake, it sounds funny, you can laugh at it yourself. It just sounds so hilarious in Gwich’in. And then they correct me, and that's okay too.”

Along with the other participants, Kyikavichik is practising both traditional and modern Gwich’in versions of the Holy Communion service, including prayers, Bible readings and traditional Gwich’in hymns.

The modern Gwich’in writing system was developed in the 1970s because the spoken language today is quite different from that recorded by Rev. McDonald, and because the sounds of the language needed to be reflected more accurately and consistently.

Four days of intensive practice and discussion of texts was to culminate in a Holy Communion service at Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse, conducted entirely in Gwich’in and with Gwich’in ministers, deacons, and lay readers officiating.

This is the second time such a service will have been held in Whitehorse, following a similar one last November that was very successful.

One of the celebrants was to be Kyikavichik's aunt by marriage, Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce of Old Crow, while another was Rev. Hannah Alexie, who invited Kyikavichik to the workshop.

“I'm excited, very much so, because the service is going to be in our language, and with all the support of the ministers and lay readers and us newer people, it'll give us the incentive to go on,” explains Kyikavichik.

“It'll feel like family, like back in the forties when everyone got together,” adds Maggie Beach of Fort Yukon, Alaska, another newcomer at the workshop.

Beach remembers attending church with her grandmother every Sunday, when“the church was packed, and some of them were singing so loud, it was just beautiful.”

Even though she remembers having to sit through the entire service without moving — “parents were strict then, they didn't let children go in and out” — she enjoyed going “because the services were joyful.”

Beach very nearly didn't attend the workshop, because she was slow in signing up and then discovered that the van bringing participants was full.

“So I asked my friends to pray so I could come because I want to learn, at my age I want to learn,” she says.

Those prayers must have worked, she says, because at the last minute someone dropped out and she had just an hour to get ready before leaving.

She too is finding the workshop valuable, and is especially impressed with the instructors.

“Randall Kendi is my cousin's son, and he and William Firth are marvellous teachers, full of energy,” she says.

“They are very inspiring to work with. They're going to keep the language alive.”

Firth and Kendi are recent graduates of YNLC's Native Language Instructor Certificate Program. Both have taken leading roles in promoting traditional Gwich’in literacy in their home communities of Ft. McPherson and Old Crow. During the workshop they shared major instructional tasks and kept the pace moving comfortably along.

The spirituality of the workshop sessions is a theme that recurs as Kyikavichik and Beach talk about their experiences, and the prospect of the communion service is an emotional one for both.

Beach explains that many Canadian Gwich’in visit Fort Yukon in the summers and sing their traditional Gwich’in hymns at the church services.

“A friend of mine cries when she hears them, and wishes she could sing like that in her language,” says Beach.

“At this workshop I'm like her, when they sing I cry a little bit.”

As for Kyikavichik, who last attended a service entirely in Gwich’in when she was a child, she says, “It used to sound so good. I just loved the hymns. I haven't heard that for a long time. Now that I'm here, it's all coming back.”