College graduates 5 First Nation language instructors

photo Mary Allison, YNLC

Recent YNLC and Yukon College graduates Doris Allen, Marion Schafer, Bella Bresse and Cresenthia Melancon at the Yukon College convocation ceremony held on May 16

Doris Allen has the rare gift of being proficient in teaching two distinct Yukon aboriginal languages, Gwich'in and Southern Tutchone.

She grew up in Old Crow, so Gwich'in is her mother tongue. She learned Southern Tutchone through many years of residence in Haines Junction and Klukshu with her late husband, Grand Chief Harry Allen, and his extended family.

She's one of five language instructors active in communities throughout the territory who recently graduated from programs offered by the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College in Whitehorse.

Allen was the only instructor this year to receive her diploma, in the ceremony at the Yukon Arts Centre on May 16. "I worked hard for that, I really put every effort I have to do that, so I'm really proud of myself," Allen says. Allen earned the two-year diploma after completing her three-year certificate at the language centre.

This year's certificate graduates are Bella Bresse of Carmacks, Kathy Magun of Watson Lake, Cresenthia Melancon of Mayo and Marion Schafer of Old Crow.

"They're all very dedicated to their students and have a strong commitment to the revitalization of their languages," says Mary Jane Allison, acting language programs coordinator.

Allen moved to Haines Junction as an adult, where she joined St. Elias School as an educational assistant. Living in Southern Tutchone territory, Allen says she decided to take night classes three times weekly in that language for an entire winter. "That landed me at my job teaching Southern Tutchone," she says.

Allen also taught Gwich'in and assisted with Southern Tutchone in Whitehorse high schools. Last fall she returned to St. Elias, teaching Southern Tutchone in K-3 classes. "I love working with younger students. They're just so eager to learn and so easy to work with," she says.

As part of her diploma, Allen completed a special project. St. Elias students created individual storybooks which Allen translated into Southern Tutchone.

With the kindergartens, Allen led group projects on big pieces of cardboard with winter and summer themes "so they could see it on paper - they could imagine it." She added Southern Tutchone names for everything from animals, to snow on the mountains, to flowers and berries.

Kathy Magun, a Kaska teacher at Johnson Elementary, says her language is an important part of who she is as a Kaska First Nation person and residential school survivor.

"Kaska language was my first language so that really helped me tremendously in my training along the way," she says. When she began working with Kaska again, Magun says "it was like I reawakened the language that was waiting dormant within me."

Magun says some people question the value of learning aboriginal languages, but she says education in one's minority language is a basic human right. She says various studies show numerous lifelong benefits for children who learn a second language early in life - including improved reasoning and problem-solving and ability to learn additional languages.

Magun adds that First Nations children who are connected to their cultural heritage and ancestry in school have stronger self-esteem, which is vital for overall learning. Magun says she appreciates all languages and rejoices in hearing them spoken.

As for Kaska, "we have a really kind language," she says. She recounts her young students asking her how to say "shut up" in Kaska. She explained to them that there's no phrasing for that. "I found my language is gentle, healing is I guess the word," she says.

"It was kind of emotional for me to walk into the arts centre with a cap and gown, but it was also a special day for me," says Marion Schafer of Old Crow, who teaches Gwich'in at Chief Zheh Gittlit School. Three of her grandchildren were there supporting her. "I felt so proud that day for completing my three years," Shafer adds.

When she arrived back in Old Crow, she received graduation cards that co-worker Randall Kendi and the students had made. "With the Grades 1, 2 and 3 it said, `I love you, Mrs. Schafer, you are a good teacher and congratulations on a job well done.' Oh, I took that to heart."

"What really helps me in my teaching is my fluency," says Schafer, whose parents spoke Gwich'in to her growing up.

Cresenthia Melancon, 25, is among the younger generation of language instructors. She didn't grow up speaking Northern Tutchone but took school language classes taught by her grandmother Catherine Germaine.

"At school, I always enjoyed going to class because I could see her teach me," Melancon says. "She's also my inspiration." Melancon works part-time at JV Clark School in Mayo and says she still seeks her grandmother's language tips.

She says she incorporates plenty of games into her classes. "That's the best way to learn language, when you incorporate fun with it," she says. "I don't want language class to be boring!" Melancon says she also speaks Northern Tutchone at home with her two-year-old son.

Besides her work at JV Clark, she's teaching a three-week language course this month with elder Mary Battaja through Na Cho Nyak Dun First Nation.

Melancon says she plans to pursue her diploma next with the language centre. Her advice to young people considering a career in native language instruction: "I'd say, 'Go for it!'"

That's an endorsement welcomed by Mary Jane Allison and her language centre colleague Linda Harvey, the urban programs coordinator. Allison, 29, was the first native language instructor coming from the Yukon public school system.

"I would like to see more people enroll into the entry-level certificate program," Allison says. Allison and Harvey say the language centre offers a unique learning experience in a small group setting.

Harvey says she visits each certificate trainee twice each year in their community. Trainees also attend fall and spring workshops at the language centre, plus a literacy workshop focusing on their language. She says trainees must find a practicum placement in a school or community setting and work with a mentor or "speaker model," but the language centre provides support to trainees who face challenges.

"We don't teach the language," Harvey says. "But they learn it as they're learning to teach," Allison says.

Since 1986, the language centre, administered by the Council of Yukon First Nations and funded by the Government of Yukon, has produced 103 Certificate graduates (85 from the Yukon) and 34 Diploma graduates (31 from the Yukon). Ten instructors have gone on to complete Associate of Applied Science degrees in native language education with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Information on YNLC's training programs can be found at http://www.ynlc.ca