Researchers use Indigenous bird names to track changes in species and languages

For the past year, Jared Gonet has compiled names of Yukon birds in Yukon and Alaskan First Nation languages.

For the past year, Jared Gonet has compiled names of Yukon birds in Yukon and Alaskan First Nation languages.

With over 200 species and 14 languages, the database has over 2,000 bird names.

The task itself is fastidious: it required the Yukon Research Centre student to look up every single species in dictionaries and ethnographic studies. He also included beliefs about birds in each culture, when available.

But it’s what you can learn once you have that database that’s really interesting.

The raven, for example, said Gonet, is seen throughout the North as a crafty trickster.

“In one language, he was thought to have created the Chilkoot Pass and the Five Finger Rapids,” he said.

The common loon, on the other hand, was seen as an inspiration for songs, and as a healing animal.

Beliefs vary from First Nation to First Nation, sometimes influenced by their geographical location.

The Coastal Tlingit had strong beliefs about grouse, unlike any other First Nation in the territory, said Gonet, a member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

“Maybe it is a more important food source, there were more interactions with the bird.”

The beliefs often carry additional information that can be used for research.

In eastern Alaska, April is called the red-tailed hawk month in one of the local traditional languages, Gonet said, because that’s when the birds arrive in the region on their northward migration.

“Finding little pieces of info about birds, that will tell you about the biology of the bird,” he said.

For Gonet, it’s also about taking a different approach to traditional knowledge.

Rather than using it as a summary of anecdotal evidence that is confirmed by science — and the assumption that science is the only valid way to see the world — both traditional knowledge and science can inform one another, Gonet said.

The fact that April was named after the red-tailed hawk migration can inform research today. For example, that information could be used as a reference point if the hawk’s migration pattern changes.

Similar work has been done on a broader scale down south, in the fields of ethnobotany and ethnoornithology, gathering traditional names of plants and birds.

Less of this work has been done in the Yukon, where the focus has been on recording traditional languages first, a necessary pre-requisite for the type of work Gonet did.

For Norman Easton, an anthropology instructor at Yukon College who suggested the idea of the database to Gonet, it will allow researchers to learn about people and their languages.

“It’s about looking at similarities and differences between the languages and how they might be historically related,” Easton said.

Generally, the more words in different languages are similar to each other, the more closely those languages are related.

It also allows linguists to get an idea of how much time has passed since speakers from both languages shared a common tongue.

The Common Raven is called Taatsàan’ in Upper Tanana, and Tätrà̧’ in Han, Yukon languages. It’s called Dotron’ in Lower Tanana and in Upper Kuskokwim and Dotson’sa in Koyukon, both Alaskan languages.

“It helps us think about migration and movement of people,” Easton said. “We did the same thing with the Roman languages in Europe.”

The idea of the raven as a creator and trickster in traditional languages still has resonance today. Many artists in the territory focus on the intriguing animal.

Ultimately the database will be available for the public to see and use. That will help with language preservation efforts, Easton said.

For Gonet, that’s especially important, as it will allow people to learn more about their own language.

In the future the plan is to expand the database to include samples of bird calls and of the names in each traditional language pronounced by elders.

For more information about Yukon birds, Environment Yukon has guidelines and brochures available on its website.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

City of Whitehorse city council meeting in Whitehorse on Oct. 5, 2020. An updated council procedures bylaw was proposed at Whitehorse city council’s Jan. 18 meeting that would see a few changes to council meetings and how council handles certain matters like civil emergencies. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse procedures bylaw comes forward

New measures proposed for how council could deal with emergencies

A Yukon survey querying transportation between communities has already seen hundreds of participants and is the latest review highlighting the territory’s gap in accessibility. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Multiple reports, survey decry lack of transportation between Yukon communities

A Community Travel survey is the latest in a slew of initiatives pointing to poor accessibility

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

The now empty lot at 410 Cook Street in Whitehorse on Jan. 19. As developers move forward with plans for a housing development that would feature 16 micro-units, they are asking city council for a zoning change that would reduce the number of required parking spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Developer asks for zoning change

Would reduce the number of required parking spaces

The Liard First Nation is preparing to enter negotiations for self-governance with the territorial and federal governments. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News file)
Liard First Nation preparing to enter self-governance negotiations with Yukon, federal governments

Chief Stephen Charlie seeking an agreement separate from “dead end” UFA

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

Most Read