When Hazel Bunbury was a little girl, her grandparents and mother told her stories.
Bunbury and her siblings went to sleep after hearing tales in the Ta’an/Whitehorse/Marsh Lake dialect of Southern Tutchone. When they finished their chores around their home in Lake Laberge, these stories were their reward.
“We didn’t have any TV or anything, so we really looked forward to some of the stories that they would tell us,” said Bunbury. The telling was important: these stories could only be passed down orally. There were no tape recorders to record them, and Bunbury’s grandparents couldn’t write their language.
“So they just told it to us. It was up to us,” said Bunbury. “They told it to us over and over and over and told us, ‘Now you have to remember this, so you can tell your own grandchildren someday.’”
And for most of her life, that’s what she’s done.
Bunbury spent many years teaching Southern Tutchone in Whitehorse schools. She would play recordings of the stories and then discuss the stories’ lessons with the students. The children would draw pictures and learn simple words from the language.
Bunbury saw how much the students enjoyed the stories, so she decided to put some of them together in a book. She’s spent the past year putting 11 of them together for Dashaw Ts’an Kwandur, or Stories From Our Elders.
Compiling these stories, many of them thousands of years old, could be challenging. She had to make them shorter and she also had to sanitize them, so they were appropriate for children. Bunbury “took out some of the gory details” from the creation story, omitting parts where the animals kill people, she said.
Adults also like to hear the stories, said Bunbury. They often want more details.
For example, in this book’s version of “Sha Utthe,” a story about a man who marries the Sun’s daughter, she mentions how the Sun set many deadly traps for the man. But she doesn’t describe them.
Even when her children and grandchildren ask about the traps, she doesn’t go into the details. “I know what the deadly traps are,” she said, “but that’s for another day.”
It’s a hopeful statement – that there will be another day for her language. When she was a child, the sounds of her Southern Tutchone dialect sent her to sleep. Then Bunbury was told she couldn’t speak it any more.
She spent more than eight years at Whitehorse Baptist Mission School as a child. By boat, her home was only a few hours away. But, in many ways, she was in a faraway country. She was forced to learn English. There, she was away from her family, language and culture.
But she always remembered the stories. They were her reminders of home.
“They’re our heritage,” Bunbury said. “They’re what our First Nation left for us. They’re our history. They’re a valuable part of our history.”
Valuable yes, but rare and endangered. Many of the people she went to residential school with can no longer speak their First Nation language, said Bunbury.
“Other First Nations persons, like myself, didn’t know who they were. They couldn’t speak their language. They didn’t even know what their clan was. They weren’t able to respond in their language, and even their parents weren’t able to speak either,” said Bunbury of life after residential school.
“I just felt that if you don’t know your language, you don’t know who you are. It’s your heritage you’ve lost. Our language is who we are. Language is our culture. I want my grandchildren to have pride in that, to be proud of who they are and to be proud to be able to speak their own language.”
People lost their culture. Even though her family goes back to the areas surrounding Lake Laberge and Fox Lake to harvest berries every fall, many children don’t know about their traditional foods, she said. They don’t know about sewing, beading, tanning moosehide or living off the land. Class trips are helping restore this, she said.
That’s why she made this book. The stories are written in English, with a few Southern Tutchone words sprinkled throughout: “ts’urki’” for “raven,”“chunay” for “eagle,”“dach’aw” for porcupine, “ala” for “brother-in-law.” There’s a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book. Southern Tutchone is a tonal language; a word’s meaning can change depending on how vowels are pronounced.
She did that deliberately. The stories do teach First Nations beliefs and traditions, and emphasize sharing, respect for animals and helping others, she said. But these are lessons for all readers, not just those from a First Nation background, said Bunbury.
And everyone can appreciate the humour in the stories, she said. In several, animals play tricks on each other. Her personal favourite is “Ts’urk’I and Chunay Kwandur.” It describes how the raven and eagle argued about who is the oldest.
“I just like the way they – what’s that word? They started arguing about who was the eldest, and how they came to prove who was,” said Bunbury.
The birds, brothers-in-law, had a contest to settle the matter once and for all. The eagle decided they would use a hat. Each bird would put on a hat, and if it got dark when the hat was on, it would prove who was older. When the raven crammed the hat over his head, nothing changed. But when the eagle put the hat on, the sky became overcast. It grew darker and darker the further he pulled it down.
“Tl’ah,” a Southern Tutchone word for “the end,” closes each tale.
Bunbury is working on several other projects to help keep the language alive. She’s working on a dictionary as part of a language revitalization project with the Council of Yukon First Nations, she’s made a Ta’an language phrasebook and does translating, on a contract basis, for other First Nations. And one day, she may publish another book of stories, she said.
Both the Ta’an Kwach’an Council and the Yukon Historic Resources Fund contributed to Stories From Our Elders. The book launch will be held at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre at Jan. 24 at 4 p.m. If people aren’t able to attend the launch, they can call the Ta’an Kwach’an Council at 668-3613.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at