Gertie Tom: a life in her native language

VOICE OF HISTORY... Gertie Tom has spent a lifetime helping to preserve and promote the Northern Tutchone language.

Drive past the CBC building at the corner of 3rd and Elliot and you'll see a large mural depicting personalities from CBC Yukon's past.

One of those is an attractive young woman with soft curling hair and glasses, seated in front of a microphone.

Gertie Tom worked as a part-time translator and broadcaster for the CBC in the early sixties, hosting a show in her native Northern Tutchone language.

Today, forty years later, she's still vigorously involved with the language she has spent a lifetime helping to preserve and promote.

Tom was born in a cabin in the Big Salmon River area just before Christmas of 1927, the fourth of nine children born to Jim and Jessie Shorty.

A member of the Crow clan, she was given the name of Et’ats’inkhalme.

"We lived there year round, and my parents talked to us only in our language," she says.

"In summertime my dad went to the wood camp to cut wood for the riverboats, and when we were old enough we helped him.

"In the fall he went to Whitehorse to get our winter food supplies, which were freighted out on the last boat to Dawson City.

"In winter my dad trapped muskrat and beaver and otter and sold the fur. The fur price was good in those days."

Unlike many of her generation, Tom and her siblings never attended residential school, a fact that ensured her continued fluency in her language.

"An RCMP officer came round and told my dad if he didn't send us to school, he'd go to jail," recalls Tom.

"And my dad said, 'If I go to jail, you'll have to look after those nine kids!' So we didn't go."

Tom and her family moved to Whitehorse in 1948, around the time that the riverboats stopped running and the family's source of income disappeared.

Her father built a cabin on the Fish Lake Road -- a cabin that was later moved to the Schwatka Lake road, but is now abandoned -- and cut wood locally.

Tom herself cleaned houses for a living, but then was diagnosed with TB and ended up in hospital in Edmonton for three years.

"I had TB in my chest and then it went to my spine, so I spent nine months lying in bed."

But during that time a teacher in the hospital taught the TB patients to read and write.

On her return to the Yukon Tom worked in a laundry and met her spouse, Tony Gergich, in 1956.

"Then CBC asked me to be a disk jockey for a request program in my language. The names of the records really were hard to translate into Northern Tutchone!"

During the late 1960s,Tom was approached by the Northern Health Service to train as a community health worker in Hobbema, Alberta.

"They trained us how to teach people at home to change dressings and take medications."

Tom worked at the Whitehorse General Hospital until the early 1970s, assisting doctors and nurses to communicate with native elders. 

"If the doctor gave them medicine, I had to tell them how to use it in Northern Tutchone."

During the summer of 1977 Tom used her language again, serving as an occasional translator for the Alaska Highway Pipeline Inquiry.

 "It's hard to translate from English into Northern Tutchone and then back again," she says.

"Sometimes you can't find a word in English for what they're saying in Northern Tutchone.

"For example, I had to find a word for pipeline. I used a word that means the hollow reeds that grow at Swan Lake."

That was also the year that Tom began working with linguist John Ritter, anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, and teacher Collyne Bunn at the Yukon Native Languages Project.  Based at Whitehorse Elementary School, they documented Yukon languages and developed the first aboriginal language curriculum units for use in schools.

Tom provided basic information on the Northern Tutchone language, and in turn Ritter taught her how to read and write in her own language.

Although Tom had grown up speaking her language, one of seven Athabaskan languages spoken in the Yukon, written versions of these languages were only developed in a practical way starting in the 1970s.

In fact Tom herself assisted in the development of the alphabet for Northern Tutchone which is now used by schools and First Nations.

"I was in my fifties then, and I said, 'Gee, you think I can learn, but I'm too old,' " says Tom.

"And John said, 'I know you can. All you have to do is teach me how to speak it, and in exchange I'll teach you how to read and write it.' So that's how we started."

Tom in fact did learn to read and write Northern Tutchone -- "When I make up my mind I'm pretty determined," she says.

And she has vivid memories of her early work with the Project, which eventually developed into the Yukon Native Language Centre located at Yukon College."You know, I started with pencil and paper – I didn’t even use a typewriter," says Tom.

By the early 1980’s, each work day started with a 20-minute lesson for the staff, based in large part on the monthly sequences in the curriculum guide for native languages that was being developed by a number of elders and YNLC staff.

"Gertie was a terrific teacher -- a great speaking model, and very patient with us students," recalls John Ritter.

But Tom little imagined that one day people all over the world would be able to hear her speaking her own language on the internet.

Today, if you click on the Northern Tutchone language lessons offered on YNLC's website:

you can hear Tom's clear voice pronouncing each sentence.

Tom's contribution to the preservation of her native language, however, has gone far beyond her assistance with language lessons.

As a native language specialist with YNLC, she also wrote a number of materials, including a noun dictionary and two booklets, How to Tan Hides in the Native Way and Ekeyi - My Country: Big Salmon River.

The booklet on the Big Salmon River documents the Northern Tutchone names for geographical features in the area, drawing on Tom's own extensive knowledge as well as that of several elders, especially Big Salmon George.

"Before Big Salmon George died in 1979, he told me place names from Lake Laberge over to Livingstone and through to Big Salmon right down to Tacho (Byer's Wood Camp)," explains Tom.

The booklet also includes an extensive collection of traditional stories depicting life at Big Salmon in the 1930's and 1940's.

The stories are associated with particular places, hunting techniques, tales of hard times when people starved, and memories of Tom's own travels on the land with her family.

Tom credits her mother with passing on her knowledge of the area's history as well as inculcating her children with her strong values.

 "What my mother taught me I teach other people," she says. "Not to be against anybody, because you have to work with other people."

Tom remembers travelling with her family up the Big Salmon River, or Gyo Cho Chu to Big Bend on the river's north fork, halfway between Quiet Lake and Northern Lake.

On the way they would camp, kill moose and dry the meat, as well as saving the hides to make a moose skin boat to go back to Big Salmon.

"When you travel in a moose skin boat, you can see right through the bottom of the boat," Tom recalls.

 "You can see the rocks in the bottom of the river as you travel down."

The booklet also contains an extensive genealogy chart covering eight generations, from Tom's great-great-grandmother, Edhekme, to Tom's great-nephews and nieces.

In 1986 Tom received a native language instructor certificate from Yukon College, signifying her successful completion of the three-year training course.

Although she officially retired in 1992, she continues to take an active interest in the work of YNLC, attending literacy sessions and last year recording the latest version of the Northern Tutchone language lessons on-line.

"I feel so happy that there's this nice big place," she says, indicating the Centre. "I'm so happy that the work I've been involved with will continue."