Gwich'in language classes offered at FH Collins

Students from Yukon's most northern community are now able to learn their native language in an urban setting, thanks to a new pilot program at F.H. Collins.

Seven senior high school students from Old Crow are in a Gwich'in language class that started in September.

The program, which is modelled on the existing Southern Tutchone native language program, includes both oral and written learning as well as information about traditional culture.

The program began in reponse to requests from students and parents who wanted Gwich'in language classes to extend into the upper grades.

"Our students study their traditional language through all the grades in Old Crow, but have missed it when moving to Whitehorse," notes Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Joe Linklater. 

"We feel it is very important that they now can continue their study of Gwich'in in high school in order for them to continue studying their language into adulthood.  We believe this type of investment into our youth will have great benefits into the future by strengthening the foundation of their language and learning."

The class is being taught by Ruth Carroll, a fluent speaker of Gwich'in and former longtime host of CBC Inuvik's Gwich'in language program.

As a new teacher in the school system, Carroll is being mentored by experienced Southern Tutchone language instructor Lorraine Allen.

They are working together to develop a new curriculum for the course.

"Ruth can follow the basic lesson plans we've developed for all native languages," says Allen.

"I'm there in the classroom if she needs help, but she's doing very well. I'm impressed with her."

In fact Carroll's students recently participated in a Gwich'in literacy workshop at the Yukon Native Language Centre, where Carroll taught a demonstration lesson.

The students also took part in language games and in writing vocabulary on the blackboard.

"I was very proud of the students," says Allen.

"At first they were shy, and then when we got there everything changed -- they wanted to take part."

Originally from Ft. McPherson, Carroll grew up in the traditional way speaking her language, though she lost some of her fluency while attending residential school.

"When I went home my mother would feed me dryfish or cranberries and then she'd tell me to go see my aunties," says Carroll.

"So when I went into a home and the elders were there, I never spoke English, even though they would laugh when I made mistakes.

"I'm so thankful to my mother that she did that, because I learned lots of stories from the elders."

Carroll also worked on her fluency and literacy as a field worker for the Berger Commission during the Mackenzie Valley pipeline hearings, where she translated Gwich'in into English.

"Writing that language every day really helped me get it back," she says.

Her role as host of CBC Inuvik's Gwich'in language program was also that of a teacher, she says.

"You are given everything in English and you have to put it into Gwich'in, so I felt I was educating people," Carroll notes.

"People in the communities heard about the issues that way and talked about them among themselves, so that when they had meetings they were already informed."

Carroll explains that, because Gwich'in was an oral culture for thousands of years, the community's customs and rules were never written down. 

"We had many unwritten laws -- certain things you were not allowed to do," she says.

"For example, when you're eating you should sit quietly, especially if elders are present.

"If there's a death you shouldn't play loud music or drive your skidoo all over the place."

Carroll sees it as tremendously important that such elements of the culture are communicated, given that so much information is stored in the memories of elders. 

"How do you skin a caribou? How do you make a fire in the bush? Some kids don't even know what to use.

"This program can help teach them."

Carroll includes traditional arts and crafts in the classroom, and even cooks caribou stew for her students so that "they have a little bit of home."

According to Allen, Carroll gets on exceptionally well with her students.

"They're always teasing each other. It sounds funnier in Gwich'in than in English."

Learning Gwich'in is also important because there are certain concepts that are unique to the language, just as there are in English, Carroll says.

"There's some words in Gwich'in that are very difficult to translate into another language.

"For example, there are certain words we have that tell you how to treat other people. I don't see those words in English. The word respect comes closest, maybe."

Ruth herself speaks the Tetlit Gwich'in dialect of Ft. McPherson, but teaches Vuntut Gwich'in, the dialect spoken in Old Crow.

"There's a difference between the various Gwich'in dialects, including the one spoken in Tsiigehtchic," she explains.

But all her students are from the Old Crow area, including Melinda Bruce, who grew up with her grandmother and already speaks the language well.

"So when I'm writing and teaching a word, sometimes Melinda corrects me."

In fact the Gwich'in people have the longest history of literacy of any Yukon language, thanks to the efforts of an early Church of England missionary, the Rev. Robert McDonald, and his native assistants.

"McDonald lived with our people and devised the first writing system for Gwich'in," explains Carroll.

"People saw the sharing that was taught in the Gospels as a good teaching, so they went to him."

Today McDonald's great-great-grandson, Robert Linklater, is one of Carroll's students.

"He always greets me in my language on the bus, and that makes me happy," says Carroll.

"It makes me particularly happy that a young person is speaking it."

Carroll would like to see the pilot program continue, although it's challenging producing the materials she needs to teach.

The Yukon Native Language Centre has been very helpful, she says, in providing teaching materials and assistance.

"People want to speak their language. It's ours," she explains.

"If a young person can say, 'It's a good day, Grandfather,' to an elder, that's a big difference.

"They're really happy to hear a young person speak, even if it's only a few words."

The students agree that trying to speak the language is important.  Dale Kakfwi, one of the students, says,

"I'm thankful for this class.

"I have learned a lot since I have been here and know that I am able to understand the language a lot better.

"I'm happy knowing that the younger generation can come to Whitehorse and still keep in touch with the native culture and not lose our language."