Stories North
Stories North

SPEAKING FROM THE HEART OF THE NORTH 

The Value of Revitalizing Indigenous Languages in the Yukon

By Amy Burlock

 

The land of the Yukon is the home of many Indigenous people. Their cultures are based around the land. So are their languages. Currently in the Yukon, there are eight Indigenous languages and each one is spoken by fewer than 1,500 people. They are considered to be endangered languages because if more people do not learn these languages, they will not be passed on beyond the next couple of generations. But several people are now fighting to save these languages in different ways. One of them is Bessie Cooley.

“I’m 73 – going on 19.”

Cooley (Kèyíshi, in her mother tongue, Tlingit) chuckles as she tells me how old she is. Cooley is a Tlingit woman who currently shares her experiences in residential schools as part of the Yukon Residential School Awareness Program. Hunched in an armchair, she crosses her legs at the Yukon Inn in Whitehorse, and speaks about the cultural importance of language, something that was driven home to her after the residential school system tried hard to prevent Cooley and her classmates from communicating in their mother tongues.

 

  Bessie Cooley is a 73 year old Tlingit woman who believes language is vital to culture. Cooley shares her experiences in residential schools as part of the Yukon Residential School Awareness Program. Photo by Amy Burlock.

Bessie Cooley is a 73 year old Tlingit woman who believes language is vital to culture. Cooley shares her experiences in residential schools as part of the Yukon Residential School Awareness Program. Photo by Amy Burlock.

 

"To me, it's who I am, the core of me is Tlingit and that means being a Tlingit person, knowing who you are, where you come from, and speaking the language…There is one logo that was adopted here in the Yukon, which is 'We Are Our Language', and that really really hits home, it explains everything that you are, because language I think is very basic to a person, whether it's French, Spanish, English, doesn't matter, it just is who you are".

At Yukon College, during her presentation in the Yukon Residential Schools Awareness session, Cooley alternates between Tlingit and English. She minored in Tlingit at Yukon College and she thinks there should also be an option to major in Tlingit. She calls her minor her “true major”.

Cooley explained that there’s cultural significance even to her name.

“In Tlingit, if you hear a name, say my name, Kèyíshi, people will know automatically…it’s a Crow name, a Crow Clan name…”

Cooley’s father was part of the wolf clan, one of two clans in the Yukon – the other is the crow clan. Mothers pass their clans on to their children, and two people from the same clan may not marry. So Cooley’s Tlingit name, Kèyíshi, is associated with her clan and her people, through blood and through language. 

 

 
   
  
 
 
  
    
  
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    Chief Roberta Joseph drives around in Moosehide, a small private Tr'ondek Hwech'in community located just outside of Dawson City, on the Banks of the Yukon River. Here and in Dawson, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in language, Han, is slowly being revived. Photo by Kanina Holmes.

Chief Roberta Joseph drives around in Moosehide, a small private Tr'ondek Hwech'in community located just outside of Dawson City, on the Banks of the Yukon River. Here and in Dawson, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in language, Han, is slowly being revived. Photo by Kanina Holmes.

Chief Roberta Joseph sits up straight at the front of the auditorium in the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Cultural Centre in Dawson City. She speaks quietly but powerfully. Since her election in 2014 and re-election in the spring of 2017, Chief Joseph has governed the population of about 1,100 Tr’ondek Hwech’in people, 400 of whom live in Dawson. Han is the language of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. Chief Joseph says that the loss of language in her community “has always been a concern, because the Han language is a really extinct language and we only have two fluent speakers in the community…” 

Chief Joseph estimates the number of Tr’ondek Hwech’in students in Dawson is “around 100, maybe less than that.” However, Han is slowly being reintroduced into the area. It’s taught at the local public elementary school, the Robert Service School, up until the sixth grade. And a local church, St. Paul’s Anglican, has held services in both Han and English for several years now. Chief Joseph went to a service on June 25, where numbers were low, but those who attended seemed dedicated to the community. 

  Part of the bulletin handed out at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson City – it contains The Lord's Prayer in Han & English. Photo by Amy Burlock.

Part of the bulletin handed out at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson City – it contains The Lord's Prayer in Han & English. Photo by Amy Burlock.

As Chief Joseph explains, the area’s language instructors also seem dedicated:

“They have language instructors at the school; their focus is on kindergarten to grade 6. And for our language instructors, they do all of our language programming and one of the instructors teaches language at our daycare, to the Headstart class, which are 3 and 4 year-olds. And then they have evening sessions for the citizens – anybody that wants to attend. And that just started up recently – over the past year and a half.”

  A sign entitled "The Gathering Place" stands outside the Robert Service school in Dawson city. It contains a quote about the importance of teaching children from Tr'ondek Hwech'in Elder Percy Henry. Photo by Amy Burlock.

A sign entitled "The Gathering Place" stands outside the Robert Service school in Dawson city. It contains a quote about the importance of teaching children from Tr'ondek Hwech'in Elder Percy Henry. Photo by Amy Burlock.

“Do you drink coffee?”

This is the second thing Councillor Sean Smith says to me after we meet in front of the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. We head out to grab some – he takes his black – and return to sit beside the nearby Yukon River.

Smith is a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation (KDFN), and he has been a councillor with the First Nation since 2014. He is currently working on promoting language and culture.

Smith spent a lot of time learning outdoors when he was growing up, fishing and hunting with his parents and grandparents. He worked with the Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery program and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation Michie Creek Chinook Salmon Spawning Monitoring program, but as he learned more about Indigenous language education in schools, his interests expanded and he became a teacher. “I decided to focus on that. I saw it as really important,” he explains.

“Pride and self-esteem of First Nations people – that’s what language use is tied to. There’s so much tied to the achievement of First Nations people. Language is tied to the development of a person and knowing who they are, where they’re from, and where they’re going.”

Smith acknowledges the impact of the Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow initiative which was presented to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1973. It led to the Umbrella Final Agreement Act and the self-governing governments of 11 of the 14 First Nations communities in the Yukon today.  Smith believes “in order to make change, you have to push. You have to push hard.”

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nation in the Yukon has done this by creating an adult language immersion program, which Smith would like to see implemented elsewhere as well.

“In the past, there was so much fluency at the time, now it’s almost nonexistent at the leadership level. And so that’s something that I would just like to see change. And that’s what I do, is I put my practice into what I do, what I do every day, I greet people, I talk to people, I teach them phrases, sentences, words just to help them begin to open up their mind and their heart, and that’s a very important part.”

Smith references a linguist based out of central Canada, “he calls language a paradigm…and it helped me say – well that’s exactly what I’ve been talking about for years, or trying to talk about in a way where it makes sense to people…But it’s also related to how a paradigm is a way of seeing the world, seeing and doing things and how you communicate with each other.”

  Councillor Sean Smith, councillor of education for the KDFN, poses outside the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. Photo by Amy Burlock.

Councillor Sean Smith, councillor of education for the KDFN, poses outside the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. Photo by Amy Burlock.