A native language master and living treasure

Elder Percy Henry teaching the Hän language at the Yukon Native Language Centre

At 87, Percy Henry is one of the last fluent speakers of the Hän language, a living repository of traditional knowledge who has spent a lifetime working to pass on that knowledge to others.

A former Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in chief and respected elder, Henry was awarded an honorary diploma in Northern Studies from Yukon College last spring in recognition of his mentorship role and his commitment to keeping his First Nation's traditions, language, and culture alive.

He's a relaxed and benign presence at a recent Hän literacy workshop at the Yukon Native Language Centre, where he patiently repeats words and phrases in fluent Hän. He also provides the historical and cultural background to the language examples.

Two of the participants, Angie Joseph-Rear and Georgette McLeod, recently completed a ten-month Master-Apprentice Program with Henry, studying their language on a daily basis under a CYFN initiative.

"It was pretty intense," says Joseph-Rear, until recently the long-time Hän language co-ordinator for Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in. "We worked every day for three hours. We'd go to my house or Georgette's house and sometimes the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in office."

Learning a Yukon native language like Hän is a hugely demanding enterprise. These languages are among the most complex in the world—much more so than English—with tonal variations like Mandarin Chinese and elaborate verb forms. That's why learners find the challenge so daunting. It's also why working with a fluent elder like Henry is vital, since both he and his students know he won't be around forever.

"I have a hard time picking it up orally because I'm so busy writing it down," says Joseph-Rear. "But that's important because when I write it, I can read it, and down the road I'll be able to do that. We get as much as we can from Percy now."

The website of the Language Centre includes sound clips of fluent speakers as part of its online language lessons so that users can hear the language spoken.

Unlike many others, Joseph-Rear didn't lose her language through residential school. "I never had it in the first place," she explains. "It was different in the Dawson area. The mission people—the minister and the teachers—encouraged our parents to speak only English to us. The adults spoke the language among themselves, but we children only learned English."

Hän is one of two native languages that Henry speaks. Born in traditional territory between the Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers to Gwich'in-speaking parents, Henry grew up in Moosehide, where many Hän speakers from the mouth of the Klondike River (now Dawson City) relocated during the gold rush. Henry's knowledge of Gwich'in as well as Hän is of significant help in his language teaching, since Gwich'in is the only Yukon native language with a tradition of literacy dating back almost 150 years.

In its older written form, Tukudh, it was developed over a 40-year period starting in the 1860s through a remarkable collaboration between Archdeacon Robert McDonald, a part-Ojibwa Church of England missionary from Manitoba, and Gwich'in speakers from the N.W.T. to Alaska.

Tukudh Bibles, hymns, and prayer books are still in use today and can be understood by older fluent speakers like Henry, who in turn can pass on a legacy that is highly valued by Gwich'in people.

John Ritter, founding director of the Language Centre, developed a modern Gwich'in writing system for the Canadian dialects of Gwich'in in the 1970s, using a modernized phonetic alphabet.

That system is used for other Yukon native languages as well. The Language Centre has worked with First Nation communities throughout the territory to develop dictionaries, story books, and other written materials in each language.

Joseph-Rear explains how she and Henry draw on his knowledge of Gwich'in in their lessons. "I don't know Gwich'in, but I can read really well, so sometimes we look for a word in my Gwich'in dictionary (in the Ft. McPherson dialect). I look it up and read it to Percy and then he translates it into Hän for me."

Still, teaching is a challenge for Henry because he doesn't have many fluent elders to converse with these days. Many of the speakers who participated in the early literacy sessions have passed away. "It's pretty hard for me because I got nobody to talk to. If two or three elders get together and tell stories, you can do it because you're used to talking the language."

That's why the literacy sessions at the Language Centre are so important in helping to sustain language skills. Joseph-Rear remembers working with other fluent elders such as Clara van Bibber and Archie Roberts when they were still alive. "It was just like watching children when they worked together for the first time. Someone would say, 'Oh, jeez, I never heard that word for a long time.' Even when we come to these literacy sessions, a lot of new words come up."

Those words include not just language vocabulary but place names, clan and other traditional names, songs and stories.

"It's the connection to our language and the workshops offered by the Language Centre that are keeping it going and that have really helped us," says Joseph-Rear. "I feel really good about this place."

As for Henry, she describes him as "very generous" with other learners. Henry notes wryly that "it took years to get the young people to start listening. Now they ask some questions I can't answer." He and Joseph-Rear burst into laughter as he says, "They won't let me quit!"

One of those questions is what the future will be like. "I just tell them what the elders taught me," says Henry. "In 1943 I was in Old Crow. There were a lot of ducks and other animals. The elders tell me, 'See that? In the future it will all be gone.'

"So now I tell the kids there's a tough time coming. If you respect the land, look after it, if you respect the animals and don't interfere with them, you might make it through.

"Sometimes I want to quit, but it's hard to walk away."

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