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

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