Native language students mark Yukon Education Week with commitment to learn

LEARNING... Participants at recent YNLC training session, Richard Gage, Earl Darbyshire, Percy Henry, James Wolf and Stephen Reid.

Although they only met for the first time last month, Stephen Reid and Richard Gage are equally determined to learn their native languages, and are following parallel paths to do so. Not only that, but they have the same goal: to become fully fluent speakers, and to assist their communities in developing their language resources. They met while they were attending a training session for native language instructors at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

The training session kicked off what promises to be an exceptionally busy year for the Centre, which is responding to increasing demands for teacher and literacy training from First Nations communities around the Yukon. The session was one of three held during the period that included Yukon Education Week in early October.

The Centre is collaborating with YTG's Aboriginal Language Services to improve access for community instructor trainees, and is also now developing a series of on-line language lessons in Gwich'in and Southern Tutchone, with ambitious plans to develop a series of teaching and learning aids in Yukon's other native languages.

"We never talked to each other until this week, but it's interesting how our steps are really similar," says Reid, who's a student in the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program (YNTEP) and a member of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation.

"It's kind of interesting that we're travelling down the same road."

Reid and Gage, who's a member of the Little Salmon-Carmacks First Nation, are both of a generation that came of age when many families had lost their fluency, often due to residential schooling.

That makes learning their languages a challenge, says Reid, explaining that both he and Gage began by making lists of words they came across.

"He has this paper he writes his words down on, I've got the same thing but mine's on computer," says Reid, who's learning Southern Tutchone.

In fact Gage is maintaining two word lists, because he's learning both Southern and Northern Tutchone, two closely related but still distinct languages.

"I'm Northern and my children are Northern, but they're learning Southern in school," he says.

"So I want to be able to bring that home and see what they're learning and try to bring it into my home."

He wants to get other parents more involved too, he says, so that they will keep their children learning.

Reid first became interested in his language when he was outside the Yukon, taking First Nations studies at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo.

"I was learning what we never learned in school -- about our culture, our language -- and I started thinking about who was learning it fluently enough to pass it on," he says.

"I couldn't think of anybody, and that just went right to my heart. I felt that was just horrible. So I said, 'Well, why can't I?' "

He decided to return to the Yukon to complete his teacher training and to study his language with his elders Rachel Thompson and Mary Shadow.

"I started out by going to my grandmas and asking how to say a word," explains Reid. "Then I'd write it phonetically on a piece of paper, and that grew to two pieces, and then it just grew and grew."

He also took two courses in Southern Tutchone taught by linguist and fluent speaker Daniel Tlen, "and I learned how to write it and read it, and that really helped me a lot because now instead of my little words, I can go to all these books and I know how to read them."

But he still wanted to improve his fluency, which led to his decision to work more closely with fluent elders and to attend the training session at YNLC.

With the help of his First Nation, he's devoting this semester exclusively to studying his language.

"I told them it was an investment in me," he says, explaining that his dream is to teach Southern Tutchone in an immersion program.

"And they took me up on the offer, they said, 'We'll give you a living allowance.'

"So I'm getting a living allowance from Champagne-Aishihik to study the language, and not just study but really immerse myself as much as I can."

Gage's route back to his language couldn't have been more different.

After years of struggling to attain a healthy lifestyle, he had a vivid and powerful dream in which he heard a figure speaking a native language he couldn't understand.

Afterwards, "the first thing I began saying was, 'I've got to learn my language,' " he says.

"And somebody looked at me and said, 'Don't say it, do it.' They ordered me to do it, and I took their advice. That's what got me started."

Gage has been studying on his own for a couple of years, using books and tapes from YNLC in both Northern and Southern Tutchone.

"There's about 450 phrases in each book and it took me all winter to go through those," he explains.

He's also learned 450 words from the Northern Tutchone noun dictionary and says that he's at the point now "where I want to move from basic to some harder stuff."

He makes time for his studying by using every available minute, he says.

"When I'm travelling on a bus, I usually study on the bus, or if I'm going for a walk from the village to downtown, I usually open my book and try not to trip!"

He plans to practice with elder Evelyn Skookum of Carmacks to develop his speaking ability, and he has a new goal: 2000 phrases.

Both Reid and Gage have found the week-long training session, attended by 20 participants from around the Yukon and B.C., inspirational and instructive.

"It's neat to see people from Old Crow, Dawson, Tagish, Carcross, Teslin, and Whitehorse, as well as a visitor from Prophet River who speaks the Beaver language," says Gage.

"And we're learning how all the languages are connected through the alphabet and stuff. It's been an excellent week."

"They're here to support and reaffirm what you're trying to do and say," adds Reid.

Reid notes that "it's been a great week to collect resources as well -- both teaching resources for the classroom and for myself.

"And there's been a lot of work on listening skills so you can hear the subtle differences between two words that sound almost identical."

Another participant in the class was Earl Darbyshire, whose father is non-native and who says that "in the sixties, we wouldn't speak the language around my father at home."

Darbyshire was raised in the Champagne area where his grandfather, Pardon Kane, had a trapline.

"What I learned is that if I got my burners going I could actually learn the language, which is something I never thought I could do before," he says.

"Seeing the commitment of some of these people, like Richard and Stephen, just amazed me.

"Everyone in the class really impressed me -- what they're willing to do to teach you, and what they're willing to do to learn."

Elder Louie Smith, who participated in the workshop for the first time as a fluent speaker, learned both Southern and Northern Tutchone fluently from his parents.

"I really learned something here -- the way they train people, and that we've got to respect one another," he says.

"I really appreciate what they're doing."

Both Reid and Gage plan to continue studying on their own by using available resources and working with fluent elders, although Gage says, "I wish the course could go on all winter."

He adds that "my wife sees what I'm doing, and how determined I am, and I tell her that my goal is for my children to be able to speak it."

In fact, he says, he wants it more for his children, aged 7 and 11, than he does for himself.

Both Reid and Gage have words of encouragement for others who want to learn their language with no background in speaking it.

"What I'd like to say to the people who are just coming up like we did is, 'Don't give up,' " Reid says.

"Talk to your elders, ask them to speak it to you. There's a lot of elders who're just itching to teach people, they're just waiting for you to come."

"I know people are scared for the future of our language," adds Gage.

"They figure that our children won't ever be able to speak it fluently, and it's up to us to prove them wrong."