Native-language teacher is a role model

INSPIRATION... Margaret Workman completed her associate of appled science degree in May. She is also the Southern Tutchone language specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

WHITEHORSE - When Margaret Workman was born, her Southern Tutchone mother took a beaver claw, stroked it across her palms and said, "That's going to make you a really good worker." Perhaps that explains the 63-year-old great-grandmother's commitment to completing her Associate of Applied Science degree, which she received from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in May.

"I wanted the satisfaction of having the degree," explains Workman, the founding instructor of the Southern Tutchone language program at F.H. Collins and now the Southern Tutchone language specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

It's meant giving up her holidays for several summers in order to attend classes in Fairbanks and complete all the coursework.

And it also meant missing out on the birth of her first great-grandchild last July, a girl who's been given one of Workman's own Wolf Clan names: Madäna, meaning "inquisitive person."

"I'm the kind of person who starts something and wants to complete it," says Workman.

"When I sit down and start making a moccasin, I don't want to leave it partly done. I've always been like that."

The second oldest of 12 siblings, Workman grew up in the traditional way with her family in Aishihik until she was taken away at age seven to attend the Baptist Mission School in Whitehorse.

She was taught to become a missionary to her own people, but "I couldn't go back and tell my mother and dad that what they did was wrong, or that they couldn't speak their language anymore because it was wrong."

By age 16 she was on her own, working as a nurse's aide at the old Whitehorse hospital and later as a cook at highway lodges in Destruction Bay and elsewhere.

But on summer visits home, after she "stopped being ashamed" of her language, she worked at regaining the fluency that she'd lost at school.

"It was still there, I could hear it, but I had difficulty in thinking in Southern Tutchone," she explains.

"I always thought in English and translated it into Southern Tutchone, and it took me a while to wrap my tongue around the words and sentences."

With a lot of practice, she succeeded, helped by her grandmother who "never let up on me," she explains.

"When she asked me a question and I answered in English, she'd look at me and say, 'You sure don't look white to me!' " Workman laughs.

"She always made me answer her in Southern Tutchone."

In the early eighties, after moving to Whitehorse where her three grown children were living, Workman was approached by Agnes MacDonald, then teaching Southern Tutchone at Whitehorse Elementary.

"She said, 'Why don't you come and help me and see if you like it?' " Workman recalls, who already had some experience teaching her language as part of an arts and crafts course at the Haines Junction school.

"So I went into her class a couple of times and did language lessons with her, and I found that I liked it."

After continuing at the school on a volunteer basis, she was asked by John Ritter, director of what was then called the Yukon Native Languages Project, to consider formal training as a language teacher.

Workman entered the Certificate training program in 1983, becoming a member of the first graduating class in 1986.

Although today trainee teachers are teamed with a mentoring teacher, there were few such mentors available then, and Workman soon found herself teaching on her own at Christ the King Elementary, where she had completed her practicum.

"I didn't find it hard, because I've been learning all my life, and teaching my kids, and teaching others," she says.

She had the help of a curriculum guide developed by teacher Collyne Bunn, and Northern Tutchone elder Gertie Tom, including line drawings by the now internationally known artist Ted Harrison, which divided the teaching year into seasons.

"For example, fall would be animals, berries, and fishing, and winter time would be trapping, hunting, and ice-fishing. You grew up doing those things," says Workman.

Meanwhile, both teachers and parents were requesting a language program at the high school so that elementary students could continue learning.

After many meetings, as well as formal agreement from southern universities to offer accreditation, the Southern Tutchone language program at F.H. Collins got underway in 1989, with Workman and co-teacher Carol Pettigrew as the first instructors.

"The first year, I remember, I walked into the classroom and there were 32 students sitting there waiting," says Workman -- double the number they'd planned for.

"I was really glad that they were well-behaved students and really interested in learning."

Workman taught at the school until 1993, when current teacher Lorraine Allen joined her as assistant and trainee.

Although she was seconded to the Yukon Native Language Centre when Allen took over permanently in 1996, she says she still misses the classroom.

"I'm still a classroom teacher. I love teaching. I miss a lot of it -- interacting with students, taking them on field trips."

In her role at YNLC she is now an instructor of native language teachers, which she describes as quite different from teaching high-school students.

"We focus on training them how to use second language teaching methods without the use of English," she explains.

"I tell them not to stop and explain what they're going to do in English, but just get right into it and use gestures, and the students will catch on. We show them how to use immersion methods in their classes all the time."

Completing her degree has given her more confidence as an instructor as well as the satisfaction of knowing that she could hold her own in university classes at UAF.

"I was fortunate to be able to use a lot of my Yukon background and history in the English and Communication courses I took at the University of Alaska. My professors were demanding but fair."

Workman started her degree in 1992 and but wasn't able to continue the following year because of her father's illness.

"And then I thought, well, I want that degree, I started it, I have to do it. So I've been going back there nearly every other summer."

The workload was heavy, she says, explaining that a term's work is condensed into six weeks.

"Fortunately I was able to schedule my classes in the mornings, leaving me the afternoons to do assignments and research," she says.

Margaret is now the fifth Yukon aboriginal language teacher to complete the degree in Native Language Education.

"We designed this program for native language teachers who want to continue their education beyond the Certificate and Diploma Programs at Yukon College. It's a great example of cooperation between the Language Centre, Yukon College, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks," notes YNLC Director John Ritter.

While Margaret was unable to attend the UAF graduation in May, she happily participated in Yukon College graduation earlier this month.

It was most rewarding for her to "see the graduates from YNLC march across the stage, proud of themselves."

"I want to train as many teachers as I can so that they can go back to their own communities," she explains.

"I want them to become missionaries to their own people, only in a different way. I want them to inspire the children to know as much as they can about their traditional languages and cultures."

As for her own future goals, Workman, as usual, has her sights set high.

"I want to be known as someone who helped train the very best language teachers in the Yukon," says the woman who received an Innovations in Teaching Award from the Yukon Department of Education in 1998.

As the little girl at mission school who was not allowed to speak her language, she has now come full circle as a fluent speaker and instructor of Southern Tutchone who is passing on her teaching skills to others.

"It makes me feel good. Sometimes I just feel like I'm walking on air."