Episode 9 - Language
This episode will explore the importance of language in learning.
Welcome back to Walking our Path Together, a series of audio stories exploring Yukon College’s reconciliation journey.
This is Episode 9: Language
In the story we’ll visit a drop-in program at the College where Carolina Logan – a nursing student originally from Chile – and her family are learning about the Gwich’in language and culture by spending time with Elder Ruth Carroll. We’ll also hear from other Yukoners about their connections to language, and what it means to them.
Now, let’s go to the Harry Allan Lounge on the Ayamdigut campus. It’s a comfortable spot, there’s hot tea in the kettle, and a spirited game of Go Fish happening on the table.
Carolina, her husband Nicolas, and her 9-year-old daughter Esparanza, and are learning how to say Gwitch’in words and numbers by playing cards with their teacher, Ruth.
Esparanza Logan: I’m Esparanza Logan. My mom was born in Chile and my dad was born here, in Canada, so I’m part Chilean and part Canadian. I’m going to be 10 in August.
We came last week, and there was soup and we learned some words that are on that board, and we also heard stories from some of the other people here. Like in most places, you learn a lot from stories.
Another reason I want to go here is because right now, recently I’ve been learning a lot of languages, so I’m trying to learn as many as I can in case I come across people that speak other languages, and I need to talk to them.
Ruth Carroll: Ruth Carroll [language]. My name is Ruth Carroll. What’s yours? [language] I’m from the Peel River area, and [language], yeah, they’re all my grandparents and my parents, and we have big line of people before me.
So what we’re doing this week, we got bunch of words up there on the board just last week. The week before we’ve been writing a few words in there how do you greet people, you know. So it’s all in Gwich’in. And my Gwich’in language is from the Peel River area, Takudh Gwich’in, so that’s what I teach. Old Crow and Alaskans and Tsiigehtchic people, we all speak Gwich’in language, but our dialects are a little bit different. So, what you see written on the board is mostly Takudh Gwich’in, but you know, when you know the language, we understand each other, yeah, no big differences. And then when you know a little bit of something, it’s good to share it, and those words came from one of our uncles in Old Crow many years ago. At that time, he said, “It’s good to speak up when you can, even if you just have a little bit, a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of something, share it, and pretty soon it becomes huge. It becomes like big, and it’s a good thing.”
So, when other people hear you, your story or whatever you’re sharing, and then maybe one day they might run into something similar, you know, and then so they know, “I know my grandfather or my uncle or this person I know have been through this before, and he seems okay. I’ll be okay.”
You know, at the time it might be hard, but they know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s how it is. So that’s why it’s important to just share what little bit you have. And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m just sharing a bit of this and that, and it’s part of learning a language, you know.
Like when years ago we were playing, and we always used English when we played, but now with grandkids around and, you know, sometimes students, I, not only me, other teachers do the same thing where they use numbers because they need to know the numbers. So that’s important, and the good thing is that a lot of young people in the past, and in the past they lost their languages. Some of them were not at home. Some of them were in school away from home at residential schools, so some of them lost their languages. And so nowadays, you hear about reconciliation, and you hear about the government is saying that they are doing what they can to help us regain some of the stuff that we lost, very important way of being and living, we lost that they say, so we’re trying to get it back in different ways.
So this is just one of the ways that, language is one of it, huh? So I can talk a little bit about numbers and even just saying the numbers, you know, it gets people like the students, they get to make the different sounds. We have all these different sounds in the language, and so, and then as they’re learning, they can get to saying more words. And even if they don’t learn much, a lot of times I heard the elders talk about when they meet a young person, sometimes they’re walking down the street and they meet a young person, that young person is full of life and energy and they’re saying things like Drin Gwinzii, just speaking a little bit of language. Even if you just can say a few words, it can bring some joy into somebody else’s life like especially with the Elders. Sometimes, the kids are picking up things like [language]. My grandkids, they say that sometimes to me.
Leighann: What does that mean?
Ruth Carroll: It means, can I have some money?
Of course, Gwich’in speakers may have noticed that Ruth likes to joke around, and that phrase actually means “I love you”.
Angela Code: My name is Angela Code and I am Sayisi Dene First Nation. I am originally from a small community called Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, and I live here in Whitehorse, Yukon.
I think languages are beautiful. You know, languages have been developed for thousands of years in the environment in which they grow. It’s such a beautiful way to see the world in a different lens, and it offers a window into someone else’s world view. It’s so reflective of the environment in which it comes from.
And so, I think languages are important because, yeah, it increases the human knowledge base because in learning a language, like an Indigenous language, you learn so much more about the ecology and different animals and just like a different way of seeing the world.
I know for my native language, Dene Yatiye, when you learn more of the language you see how much it’s connected to hunting, for example, and particularly hunting caribou. If I was to say it’s slippery outside, I’d say [language], and that the [language] is in reference to blood, and like when you’re skinning an animal you know that if you come across like a blood clot or something, it’s very slippery. And so, in everyday use [language] could mean it’s slippery outside, it’s in reference to that aspect of our culture. Which I think is really cool.
I think it’s really great for your own identity as well. When you know your language and you’re able to use it, it creates a bond between you and the person that your speaking to, and to your ancestors, and it just really strengthens your cultural identity. And for non-Indigenous people learning to speak an Indigenous language, it really makes you respect the territory that you live in and it gives you a broader understanding of the world and various peoples. I think languages are beautiful and the more you learn the better.
Gerald Isaac: Yes. Good morning. My name is Gerald Isaac. I’m a Han Hwech’in First Nation Elder and citizen. I was born and raised in Dawson City and my early formative years was in the village of Moosehide, a few miles below Dawson City. I was raised and adopted by my grandmother and her name was Eliza Isaac and that was my beginning. My first language was Han Hwech’in of course. And when we went to public school, when we relocated from the Village to Dawson City, we enrolled in the public school and we were required to learn and speak English.
It’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of identity. It’s a matter of maintaining who you are, where you came from and where you’re going. Without your language, you have no identity, you have no culture. It’s a fait accompli, an introduction of a student to the Indian residential school. You lose your language. You lose your culture and you lose your way of life. So it’s a must. It’s survival. Even if you could speak a few words, "How are you?" [language] "What’s the weather like?" [language] "It’s raining or snowing or foggy or sunshiny." You can say that in your language.
"What’s your name? How are you?" [language] "How are you?" Well if you can say a few words like that and you can say in a response, say [language] That means, "I’m feeling very good today." [language] "how about you" How do you feel?" [language]. So, if you can say a few words like that and make reference to some use of your language, it’s invigorating. It’s satisfying to be able to use your language.
When I was involved the promoting and recording and saving languages, the battle cry was, "You either use your language or you lose your language.” That’s the bottom line. That’s it.
Back at the College at the Gwitchin drop in evening, the card game is just finishing up.
We are humbled and grateful to the knowledgeable Yukoners who took their time to be part of this project, and to help tell this story.
This audio story was produced by Leighann Chalykoff for Yukon College.
Original music is by Jona Barr.
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