First Nations women come together to learn their native languages

Angelica Green masters language teaching techniques at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Two First Nations women from different generations and native languages found themselves in the same language classroom last week—fired by a growing interest in learning their aboriginal tongues.

Mary Tulk, an addictions counsellor with the Little Salmon-Carmacks First Nation, is of the generation that largely lost their native languages at residential school. Angelica Green, who’s 23 and from the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, learned hers in school language programs, but like many younger people had few opportunities to use the language outside that setting.

Yet today, both women are attending their first week-long training session at the Yukon Native Language Centre, determined to work at becoming fluent.

The eighth of 10 children, Tulk saw her older brothers and sisters go off to residential school and return speaking only English. As a result, “My mother didn’t want to encourage me to speak Northern Tutchone,” says Tulk, “because she was afraid when I leave for residential school they would have to break me from the language.”

Her parents spoke to her in Northern Tutchone, but Tulk and her younger brother and sister were not encouraged to learn it, answering in English instead.

Tulk’s older sisters, Agnes Charlie and Evelyn Skookum, later regained their fluency through the Language Centre’s training programs, and today teach Northern Tutchone in the daycare and adult programs run by the First Nation in Carmacks.

“I started going to their classes over the years, here and there,” says Tulk. “I understand everything but I cannot carry on a conversation. I can only say short sentences.”

It was her sisters who inspired Tulk to pursue more intensive training. After five years of accredited language training, Agnes Charlie received her Diploma in native language teaching from YNLC in 2003, while her sister Evelyn completed the three-year Certificate training program that same year.

“I’d heard about YNLC for a long time from my sisters,” notes Tulk. “I was always curious about how they teach when there are different languages involved.” In fact, Tulk herself wanted to apply for a teaching job at Tantalus School in Carmacks, but adds, “I was unsure of myself.”

Her face glows when she’s asked her opinion of the training she’s receiving. “I have been so impressed. They gave me a book in Northern Tutchone and I’ve been studying it and saying it out loud. In my mind I know how my mother and siblings say it.”

The training sessions are designed to prepare students to teach their languages in school or community settings. Among other activities, participants must teach a demonstration lesson in their own language. That means that all participants have the experience of being first-time learners of another language as they take turns becoming the “pupils.”

“I know practice makes perfect, so I’m putting a lot of energy into it,” says Tulk. She’s learned, too, that the Language Centre’s website offers online lessons in all eight of Yukon’s native languages, so she can practise her pronunciation as well as reading and writing at home.

Tulk already has words tacked up all over her house—“words like my father’s brother, my mother’s brother, they’re different in my language, not like in English where you have the one word uncle.”

Her grandchildren are providing an incentive, too.”My nine-year-old granddaughter, who studies the language in school, can say some words better than I can,” says Tulk. “I need to learn it before I hit 60.”

Part of Angelica Green’s inspiration also comes from a relative—in her case her late grandmother, Evelyn Green.

“I was in my grandma’s Southern Tutchone class in Whitehorse Elementary,” remembers Green. “My Grandma Evelyn taught there with Hazel Bunbury.”

Her grandmother received her Diploma in 1993, having begun her training in the late eighties as a member of the Language Centre’s very first graduating class.

That class included Angelica’s great-aunt Margaret Workman, who went on to establish the first Southern Tutchone language program at F.H. Collins.

It was that generation that made it possible for their grandchildren to learn their languages in school. When Angelica’s family moved to Haines Junction, she studied Southern Tutchone at St. Elias School with Martha Smith, and later at Porter Creek Secondary with Mary Jane Allison.

In Grade 12 she was even awarded a plaque for achievement in Southern Tutchone. But she wanted more. “I was interested in teaching myself to speak my language fluently, to have it fall out of my mouth without thinking,” she says.

In her early twenties she attended college in Edmonton, where her friends included Blackfoot and Cree students her own age who were fluent in their languages. “I was jealous. A lot,” she recalls.

She knew about the training programs at the Language Centre from her mother, but it was another language teacher, Vera Brown, who lit the fuse.

“She came by one day to see my mom, and she talked to me in our language and she said, ‘You’re really good, you should go visit the Language Centre.’ So I did, and I was invited to come to this training session and check it out and find out what the program is all about.”

So what’s the week been like? “It’s been fun,” she says happily. “Everyone wants you to succeed.”

She even got over her nervousness about teaching her first lesson in front of a class, a task she hadn’t expected. If she needed any help, she says, she got that from her great-aunt, Margaret Workman, who though now retired from her role as Southern Tutchone language specialist at YNLC still attends the training sessions as a fluent speaker.

Angelica takes off a necklace of silverberry seeds and holds it out. Also known as Donjek berries, the gooseberry-like fruit produces seeds that were traditionally used for beadwork. “I’m learning to bead from my mom,” she explains, adding that just as her mother remembers her grandmother speaking her language, she too hears her grandma’s voice.

“My grandma graduated from the certificate program here at the Language Centre when I was just a baby,” she says with tears in her eyes. “She’s one of my inspirations.”