Tr’ondek Hwech’in work to reclaim their native language

photo YNLC 

Tish Lindgren, right, and Erika Scheffen during a Hän literacy session at the Yukon Native Language Centre

Tish Lindgren is a 31-year-old member of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in who likes to tell a story about her famous great-grandfather, the highly respected Chief Isaac.

When the gold rush brought thousands of non-native people to the Dawson area, Chief Isaac decided to take his favourite songs and dances to relatives on the Alaskan side of the border for safekeeping. He asked them to return these songs and dances when the Han people of Dawson were ready to revive them again.

"Now, a hundred years later, these songs are slowly trickling back into our culture from the Alaska side," Lindgren says. "A lot of things get lost in history that you can never get back, but just like the language, you're trying."

Lindgren is part of a younger generation of Tr'ondek Hwech'in people who are working to reclaim their native Han language. She recently participated in a literacy workshop at the Yukon Native Language Centre, along with her six-year-old son, Presley, who's studying the language in school.

"Kids are just like sponges and they pick it up right away," she says. "We were doing a listening exercise in the workshop and Presley was getting them all right and I was getting them mostly wrong!"

Lindgren works as a heritage interpreter and community programmer at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson. "I started working at the centre in high school and part of our job is to know the language and be able to speak it," she says.

Learning about the history of the residential schools and the effects of the gold rush made her want to learn her language and keep it going. "In one of the movies we show at the centre, called Han Language: Echoes and Embers, at the end a girl says, 'If you don't have a language, you don't have a culture.' "For me, even if I don't learn it fully, I think it's important. One more word I learn is a word I didn't know before."

Lindgren admits that "the language was kind of intimidating in a way. It's a lifelong thing, right? You have to know the high and low tones and the two dots above the a's and the e's and the nasal sound at the end - it's hard. "It's a work in progress and it's going to take a while, but I think every little bit will count. Maybe some day people like my son will speak the language."

Meanwhile, she uses some Han words and phrases around the house with him. "Sometimes if I get mad I'll say it in Han and then Presley knows I'm serious."

Along with the other 14 participants in the Han workshop, Lindgren practised reading from a story booklet, Georgette Goes Hunting (Lejit Natazre in Han), developed by the Tr'ondek Hwech'in Heritage Department with assistance from the Yukon Native Language Centre. The booklet features photos of an actual Tr'ondek Hwech'in member and workshop participant, Georgette McLeod (whose name in Han is Lejit).

Like Lindgren, McLeod is steeped in the history and culture of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in as a heritage department employee. She also taught her language with her late mother, Bertha McLeod, who received her native language training certificate from YNLC in 1999.

The photos in the booklet were taken during McLeod's first hunt in 2005 by her colleague Madeleine de Repentigny. Both women participated in the caribou hunting camp held each fall by the First Nation.

"That year was really mild and there were a lot of Porcupine caribou around," recalls McLeod. "My husband had bought me a rifle for my birthday, and that was the first time I'd shot a caribou. We got 13 or 14 caribou at the camp that year."

The story booklet grew out of those photos thanks to Angie Joseph-Rear, the Han language programmer for the Tr'ondek Hwech'in, who worked with fluent elders Percy Henry and Edward Roberts to develop the story. The bilingual text and photos take the reader through McLeod's preparations for the hunt and her killing and skinning of the animal.

"It takes time for Percy and Edward to come up with the right words for the story," explains McLeod. "Sometimes they rely on the Eagle dialect of the Han language to help them find words that will fit."

It's the first of a series of booklets documenting the way of life on the land, including berry picking and fishing. "It seems to have more of an impact using real people," McLeod says. "It shows we're still getting out and spending time on the land, and we're using the skills we've acquired from our elders."

Those skills include the traditional protocols around hunting, which are always discussed with the youth attending the hunt camp.

"It's all based on Dä'ole, which is the traditional Han law and beliefs," McLeod adds. "These are the things you need to know in order to conduct yourself properly in hunts - for example, how you think of the animal, how you take care of it when you've taken its life. One of the first things you must do is cut off the animal's head and turn it away from the body so it doesn't see itself being butchered. It's a sign of respect for the animal because it's understood that its spirit is still very strong and present, and the animal is providing for you and your family."

This first story booklet is dedicated to Henry for his dedication and commitment to the preservation of the Han language, as well as to those Han speakers who have passed on. "Percy is one of those people who wants to share as much as he can before he leaves us," says McLeod. "He recognizes that time is of the essence."

The Yukon Native Language Centre has hosted Han literacy sessions since the late 1980s. "Working with several key fluent speakers over the years, we have developed an impressive array of teaching and learning materials for the language," notes YNLC Director John Ritter. "The recent gathering here demonstrated - yet again - that younger community members are actively engaged in learning and revitalizing their ancestral language. They are spirited and enthusiastic. Mahsi' Cho!"