Carmacks elder recognized for service to her native language
Carmacks Elder Evelyn Skookum with her granddaughter Jocelyn Skookum
A Carmacks elder is being recognized for years of dedicated service on behalf of one of Yukon’s native languages.
The first Ruth Welsh Memorial Award was presented to Evelyn Skookum of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation at a Yukon College graduation ceremony held last month.
The award was established by the Yukon Native Language Centre in honour of a much-loved Gwich’in elder who passed away in December 2011 at the age of 80. A fluent speaker and teacher of her language, Ruth Welsh was also a tireless preserver and transmitter of traditional Gwich’in plant medicine teachings.
Evelyn Skookum was chosen as the award’s first recipient, says YNLC director John Ritter, because “she exemplifies the commitment and generosity that Ruth always displayed in mentoring others in traditional language and culture.”
Skookum is a distinguished native language teacher, elder, and fluent speaker of her Northern Tutchone language, which is also spoken in the Yukon communities of Mayo, Pelly Crossing, Stewart Crossing, and Beaver Creek.
Born in 1943 at Snowcap Mountain near Little Salmon village, Skookum’s Northern Tutchone name is T’anthay, meaning ‘eagle when she flies.’
Like others of her generation, Skookum grew up in the traditional way but lost her fluency at residential school.
She later regained her language through the Yukon Native Language Centre’s training programs, where she completed the three-year Certificate in Native Language teaching in 2003.
Today, at almost 70, Skookum works as a native language instructor with the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, teaching in both the daycare and office staff community language programs.
Teaching alongside her is her sister, Agnes Charlie—who also completed training at the Yukon Native Language Centre—and her granddaughter, Jocelyn Skookum, whom she encouraged and mentored to become a language instructor. Jocelyn completed her own certificate training in 2011.
“There’s three of us who work in the Language Room here—there’s Evelyn, Agnes, and myself,” says Jocelyn. “I learn a lot from the two of them every day.”
Jocelyn, who grew up with her grandmother, is enormously proud of the recognition conferred by the award.
“There’s not so much fluency with the language now, and she’s fluent,” Jocelyn explains. “She’s given a lot of years of devotion to the language. We have to keep that going and teach the younger generation.”
Before becoming a language instructor, Evelyn worked as a translator at court hearings and for hospital patients, and provided translations for the Little Salmon/Carmacks land claims agreement in 1996–97.
“I remember when I was younger she’d also be doing the reports from Carmacks in the Northern Tutchone language on CHON-FM,” recalls Jocelyn.
Evelyn also contributed to many booklets of literacy materials developed by the Yukon Native Language Centre, along with other fluent speakers of the language from the various communities where Northern Tutchone is spoken.
Then there are the May Gatherings, when Northern Tutchone elders from Carmacks, Mayo, and Pelly Crossing get together for several days to compile information and stories about traditional knowledge, including traditional laws.
“There’s a whole bunch of stories about how we got self-government, traditional law, and land claims,” explains Jocelyn, who attends the gatherings most years. “They’re in English, but we’re in the process of translating them into Northern Tutchone.”
Jocelyn, who helps with the translation, adds that they work with her former language teacher from her school days, Grace Wheeler. “She has more experience writing the language. I like the writing part of it. And the stories are interesting at the same time.”
She seems to have been destined to follow her grandmother into teaching. “I’ve got A’s in the language since I was in kindergarten,” she says. “I always got language awards. I have a passion for it.”
She shares that passion not only with her grandmother but with Ruth Welsh, whose passion is commemorated by the new award.
Born Ruth Blake in her family’s camp 12 miles downstream from Fort McPherson, NWT, Welsh grew up trapping and harvesting with her family. Her language and her knowledge of traditional plant medicines was taught to her by her mother and other Gwich’in elders.
As a young student in Fort McPherson, however, her Gwich’in language was literally beaten out of her from the age of six.
“At the time I thought, I’ll show you,” Welsh once said. “I’ll speak my language and teach it to whoever wants to learn.”
Later in her adult life she settled in Tagish, where she was adopted into the Deisheetaan (Beaver) clan of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.
She not only worked continuously to record and teach Gwich’in, but also taught many people throughout BC, Yukon, NWT, and Alaska about traditional plant medicines—including graduate-level ethnobotany students at the University of Victoria.
In 2007, with the encouragement of YNLC director John Ritter, she completed the three-year Certificate program as a Gwich’in language instructor. Three years later, at the age of 78, she graduated from Yukon College with the advanced Diploma in native language teaching, despite having been diagnosed with cancer.
“Each of you must take on part of my work,” she said when she became ill, “to continue to document and teach these traditions and languages to all who will listen.”
That’s exactly what Evelyn Skookum is doing for Northern Tutchone. As her granddaughter Jocelyn says, Evelyn is special because of “her dedication to her language.”