New native language classes at Kwanlin Dun overflow classroom

HOUSE OF LEARNING... Kwanlin dun chief Mike Smith, left, and Elder Louie Smith, right, with students April Schultz and Myranda Simpson.

The new native language program at Kwanlin Dun is proving so popular that classes are already outgrowing the classroom at the House of Learning.

Classes in Southern Tutchone, Northern Tutchone, and Tlingit began in January under a 10-week pilot project, and are now being offered for a further ten weeks until the end of June, says language coordinator Dianne Smith.

Smith, who was hired in the new position in January, is delighted by the impact the classes are having.

"It's so beautiful sitting there watching people learn their language," she says.

"It's so good to see a whole family coming to a class together."

The project was initiated by Chief Mike Smith, himself a speaker of Southern Tutchone who "attends the majority of the classes and helps teach, so he's setting an example," says Dianne Smith.

The classes were set up with assistance from Margaret Workman and Jo-Anne Johnson, staff members at the Yukon Native Language Centre and experienced native language instructors themselves.

They provided teaching suggestions and learning materials developed by the Yukon Native Language Centre, including language booklet and tape sets that are given to each participant in the Kwanlin Dun program.

The new classes mean that First Nations people of all ages who want an opportunity to learn their language can now do so, Smith notes.

In fact interest is so keen that the classes are attracting regular participants from as far away as Atlin and Carmacks.

Smith points out that Kwanlin Dun is a unique First Nation, made up of people from 14 First Nations and eight languages.

Eventually she hopes they'll be able to offer classes in other Yukon native languages, including Han, Gwich'in, and Kaska.

But this pilot program is a first by an urban First Nation, with members from all over the Yukon, offering lessons in multiple languages.

"When I was hired I thought, oh my gosh, how am I going to do this when I don't speak or understand the languages?" says Smith.

She's typical of her generation in that she doesn't speak a native language herself, although her mother speaks Southern Tutchone and her father Tlingit.

"And then I thought, it's not about me, it's about the elders. The elders are the teachers and I just make sure everything is there for them."

It was to the elders that Smith turned when she began setting up the program.

"On January 21 we met at the Potlatch House with 15 elders who spoke or understood one of the languages, and they were the ones who developed the plan for the classes," she says.

"And the staff from the Yukon Native Language Centre came to our planning workshop, shared tips, and brought a whole array of materials with them.

"They really made the elders feel comfortable."

Then Smith went door to door handing out flyers to let people know about the new program.

Held on a drop-in basis once a week, the classes are team-taught by experienced native language teachers and elders who are fluent speakers of the language.

Retired native language teacher and interpreter Emma Sam teaches the Tlingit classes, together with elders and fluent Tlingit speakers Johnnie Smith, Martha van Heel, and others, who share stories and help with pronunciation and vocabulary practice.

"Emma is very patient and really knows her language and how to teach it," says Smith.

"We are doing the alphabet -- the consonants and vowels. Once you know those you have the basis for reading and writing any Yukon native language."

Smith always wanted to learn her language but never really sat down and made a commitment, she says.

"Now I'm having the opportunity and it just makes me want to learn more."

In fact there are a number of people, including Smith herself and her adult daughter, who attend the classes in all three languages.

They offer a natural way of learning, she says: listening with respect to the elders talking, as well as learning reading and writing skills.

"We emphasize the respect, that we're all here to learn."

The classes also offer the opportunity for the elders to pass on traditional stories and history, stories that her generation didn't get to hear as children, she adds.

"One of the things Chief Smith asks is that we go there and have fun and laugh and tell stories."

But the classes also bring back painful memories, she says.

"Sometimes elders get very emotional, because they can understand the language but they weren't allowed to speak it at residential school. So if we have to cry we'll cry."

Still, she says, no one is dwelling on the victimization of the past.

"It's our responsibility now. My choice is to learn, so I'm out there learning."

She notes that parents of children enrolled in the school-based native language programs have been particularly grateful to have access to language classes.

"They say, 'It's so good to hear my children speaking that language, but I need to learn it too.'

"So the parents are really happy to be able to come to the classes, and they often come with the kids."

And new participants are joining all the time, she says.

"We never know who's going to show up."

The day before, for the first time, two young girls had attended a Northern Tutchone class led by teachers Kathy Shorty and Ann Ranigler.

"They're really interested in learning and they said they're coming back next week," Smith says with pride.

She adds that participants like the approach used by the teachers, one initially developed by the Yukon Native Language Centre and taught in its native language teacher training program.

"They like the teachers' patience and the fact we're laughing and having fun while we're learning."

Native language teacher Linda Harvey, who teaches the Southern Tutchone class together with her mother, fluent speaker Irene Smith, explains that the approach involves keeping things simple and enjoyable and using a lot of repetition.

"If it's not enjoyable then they're not going to want to do it," she says.

Participants love the language games, especially a bingo-style game called Kwidlaw -- the word means "I win" in Southern Tutchone -- which uses pictures instead of numbers.

"I hold a picture up and say a sentence in Southern Tutchone, and they look for that picture on their card," Harvey explains.

"Then whoever wins has to repeat those sentences back to me for the pictures they've covered."

And they're all laughing, she adds, especially when they're trying to repeat words with sounds that don't exist in English.

Harvey confesses that she was initially a little intimidated by the prospect of teaching at Kwanlin Dun because Chief Mike Smith, who attends the classes, is her brother.

"I was a little nervous at first because he's my older brother and I know he knows the language, but he comes to refresh his memory," she says.

"Not everyone is a fluent speaker anymore and they need to refresh their memories.

"Even for my mother, who's a fluent speaker, there are only a handful of people she can really converse with now because so many of the elders are passing away."

That's one of the reasons the games and other activities are equally popular with the elders, says Dianne Smith.

"One of the Southern Tutchone elder told me that when he plays Kwidlaw the language comes back to him," says Smith.

"He told me, 'I remembered those words, I could speak the language.'

"And as the coordinator and facilitator, I'm overwhelmed. There's so much to learn."

The elders also continue to take an active role in the direction of the classes, offering suggestions for learning, says Smith.

"They say, 'If you're cleaning house, just put the language tape on. When you're going to sleep, put the tape on and you can pick the language up that way.'

They've also told Smith that the language lessons must be offered consistently, not just now and then, a message reinforced by the participants, who want to see classes offered year-round.

That's what Smith wants, too.

"We'll stop for the hunting and gathering season over the summer and then hopefully continue on again in the fall," she says.

For Harvey, teaching at Kwanlin Dun is another way of passing on the language she began learning at a Champagne/Aishihik culture camp seven years ago, where "the fire to relearn my language was sparked," she says.

She always tells her students that Southern Tutchone is a second language to her too.

"I've been teaching for about six years, but I'm always learning," she says.

"Hopefully it encourages them to keep going because they can see how much I've picked up in that time."

Harvey's commitment to her language is full-time; she works at the Yukon Native Language Centre and also teaches in the native language program at Hidden Valley Elementary.

"The language is coming up all over the place now. We need to teach as many people as possible if we want our languages to survive."

That confirms something elder Martha van Heel told Dianne Smith when the language lessons started at Kwanlin Dun.

"You have opened another door for us," Smith recalls van Heel saying.

"It's really important for us to know our language, because our language makes us who we are."