A Loss for Words

By Katharine Sandiford -- Long imperilled, Yukon aboriginal languages are in danger of dying. But not if a growing chorus of activists have their say.

Irene Smith is one of the few remaining speakers of Southern Tutchone. With Smith's help, her daughter, Linda Harvey, re-learned the language as an adult and now works to promote its revival.

If Percy Henry hadn’t been banged on the head by a timber 60 years ago while working at Dawson City’s sawmill, he might not be so fluent in Hän, the mother tongue of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation.

“I got hit and I can't learn school,” says Henry, his accent thick, his voice gruff and mumbled. “So I went to the University of the Land instead.” Pulled out of classes in which his friends were having their ancestral tongue drilled and sometimes beaten out of them, Henry spent his youth living a traditional lifestyle. He passed most of his time with elders, speaking their language.

Now, at 80, Henry is one of two remaining fluent Hän speakers. You might imagine him to be a frail and depressed old man, but he’s far from that. He cradles his coffee mug in strong, leathery hands, and his round face is creased with lines of laughter and enthusiasm.

One of his enthusiasms – but also a source of frustration – is the revival of the language he’s so lucky to still speak. “I'll never give up,” he says. “We're nobody without our language. But you try to talk to people on the street and they laugh. They’re embarrassed that they don't know how to answer me.”

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Percy Henry’s not alone. Throughout the Yukon, languages are disappearing. All eight First Nations tongues are in steady decline, with the Hän and Tagish risking extinction. Only 42 per cent of Yukon First Nations citizens say they were raised with their ancestral language, and most of those people are either no longer fluent or rapidly aging. Few children are learning aboriginal languages at home, and English is the language of government, business and school. While some feel powerless to stop this erosion, others are gathering together and pressing to reverse the trend.

One of them is Bertha Moose. It’s a hot day in July when she bumps into one of her pupils in downtown Whitehorse. She knows the student well, having taught him Southern Tutchone for several years in her Takhini Elementary School classroom. “Dänch'ea?” she asks, inquiring how he’s doing. He turns away, pretending not to see her, and walks off with his friends. You can see Moose’s heart sink to the scorching pavement. “I try not to get discouraged,” she says, “but every fall, so many come back at square one. They forget everything over the summer. They’re not using it.”

Spoken sporadically from the communities of Burwash Landing, Haines Junction and Champagne all the way east to Whitehorse, Southern Tutchone covers several Yukon First Nations’ traditional territories. Yet according to a Yukon government study, 60 per cent of those First Nations’ members don’t understand a word of it. The remainder range from perfect fluency to being able to mutter only hello and good-bye.

The problem is not unique – neither to Southern Tutchone, nor to the Yukon. Of nearly 6,000 languages in the world, half are in decline and only 10 per cent are expected to survive the century. Across Canada, 70 per cent of aboriginal languages are in decay. Although the North has been perceived as a stronghold of native languages – indeed, Nunavut and the NWT justly maintain that reputation – the effects of the gold rush, the Alaska Highway, residential schools, aging elders and mass media have coerced most aboriginal Yukoners to drop the language of the land.

“It's like watching animals go extinct,” says Linda Harvey, who spoke Southern Tutchone as a child but had it erased from her head when she went to school. In her 30s she decided she would relearn it and, with the help of her mother, completed the exhaustive Native Language Instructor program at Yukon College in Whitehorse. Harvey now works as the college’s urban programs coordinator – lining up lessons in classrooms all over town. Yet she admits her own path to fluency is far from over. “Even though I've been at this eight years,” she says, “I still can't have a conversation with my mom. I still need to translate words in my head first.”

Up in Dawson, the problems are the same. According to Yukon government research, only around half of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in speak or understand any Hän. At best, they can exchange greetings, talk about fishing or the weather, or read the Hän signs up around town. Percy Henry tries to talk slowly to them, because he wants so badly to be understood. There’s so much embodied in the language, he says. Take the word thä chin, which can’t be translated into English. It describes a woman’s first menstruation, but alludes to a story and historic ritual the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in hold close to their cultural identity. And equally, some English words have no Hän equivalent. A now-deceased elder once told Henry that he never uses a microwave. “He calls it ‘the box with the devil inside,’” says Henry, “because we don't have words for those kinds of things.” Although there are more than a dozen fluent speakers of Hän up in Eagle, Alaska, Henry says it’s no use – the dialect is too different. “It sounds fuzzy. Like the radio in bad weather.”

The future looks worst of all for Tagish – its last living speaker, Lucy Wren, is in her 90s and there is sparse interest from the community in reviving the language. The people in Carcross and Tagish are too busy learning Tlingit – the coastal language that took hold in the area soon before English made its ruthless attack. The words and phrases of Tagish are forever committed to the vaults of Yukon College, the tapes of Wren’s voice echoing through headphones.

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Jane Montgomery teaching class in Old CrowJane Montgomery teaches Gwitchin to the school-children of Old Crow. Gwitchin is the territory's least endangered language, thanks in part to Old Crow's relative isolation.

One evening, Linda Harvey was standing in her brother’s kitchen after a long day at work. They were just chatting – a bit in English and a bit in Southern Tutchone – when she heard something strange from the living room. She tiptoed to the doorway to see her little niece and her school friend playing on the carpet. To her amazement, the children were conversing in their ancestral language, something they’d never done before. “I just about jumped for joy,” she exclaimed. “If the language dies, a part of me – my family, my history – also dies. I care about this so deeply. It’s my reason to be alive. It was a real breakthrough.”

Despite the grim statistics on aboriginal-language use in the Yukon, such breakthroughs do seem possible. According to a 2004 report released by the Yukon government’s Aboriginal Language Services, revitalization can happen – provided swift and dramatic measures are taken. Currently among Yukon First Nations people, one in five are learning their ancestral language, and four in five want to learn it.

Language crusaders got serious 30 years ago when they set up the Yukon Native Language Centre. Based out of Yukon College, the centre has graduated 87 teachers like Harvey, many of whom went on to fill the 36 native-language teacher positions created in public schools across the territory. Staff at the centre have worked tirelessly developing books, curricula, dictionaries, interactive CD-ROMs and website material – illustrated audio lessons in Yukon's languages are free at www.ynlc.ca. They also conduct literacy workshops – sessions with fluent speakers where one of their linguists records and transcribe words and phrases to pass on to students and add to their expansive records library.

“There are many positive measures people are taking,” says John Ritter, co-founder and director of the centre. “It's important not to get cynical by just looking at the numbers on the reports.” As an MIT grad student in the early 1970s, Ritter came to the territory to study Gwitchin, but stuck around to learn the rest too: He is fluent in all eight of the Yukon’s native languages, making him something of a local legend.

Some of the fruits of Ritter and other language-activists’ labour can be seen at Elijah Smith Elementary, located beside the Kwanlin Dun First Nation village in Whitehorse. There, the students, most of whom are aboriginal, take daily language classes and can participate in other cultural activities, such as an annual bison hunt conducted in Southern Tutchone. Although the students are far from fluent, the language is serving them a different purpose. “A linguist would say, no, the language has to be used and preserved the way it is,” says the school principal, John Wright. “But for my students, just having it as a part of the curriculum gives their culture value and gives them pride in who they are. The effects of this are huge.”

Thanks at least in part to such programs, some Yukon languages have good potential for recovery. The Kaska First Nation in the southeast Yukon boasts 65 percent of its population speaking or understanding their language, and the Northern Tutchone can claim 77 per cent. Way up north, the Gwitchin come in at 82 per cent.

Everyone agrees, however, that more could be done. Many say the Yukon should introduce native-language immersion schools, or “language nests”: a form of pre-school used by the Maori of New Zealand, where during class, absolutely no English is spoken. “We need an immersion program, at least for the primary years,” says Principal Wright. “There's been a lot of talk lately. My gut tells me this is going to happen.” Perhaps even more important, though, is for mothers and fathers to start speaking their languages to their kids. “It needs to start at home, with the parents,” says Angela Joseph-Rear. “And that's not happening yet.”

Chief Joe Linklater of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow would agree. “We grew up with our parents and elders speaking to us,” he says. “We still have a lot of elders left, but we need to focus on this while we have the opportunity, before it is too late.” As chair of the Yukon Chiefs Council on Education, Linklater was deeply involved in the Education Reform Project, a collaboration between First Nations and the Yukon government to look at how the education system could better serve aboriginals. “Right across the territory, this is the number one issue,” Linklater says. “Our people want their language back.”

Released this February, the project’s final report makes lengthy and specific recommendations, from language nests to the creation of a First Nations language institute that would work on policy, planning and programming to centralize territorial efforts. The report’s message is clear: get elders, parents and children to use their language at school, work and play. “There's buy-in for this at all levels,” says Linklater. “There's really good work being done ... and that combo is really helping to move things forward.”

The Yukon territorial government seems to be on board. This fiscal year it will spend over $5 million on First Nation education initiatives, including the Yukon Native Language Centre. So far, it’s endorsing the Education Reform Project and its myriad recommendations.

“There's not just one thing that has to be done,” says Linklater. “It's going to be an all-out effort at all levels. I know people want this. There's so much energy building. Things are about to change.”