Bringing a First Nation language back from the brink

As a young teenager, K'eduka Jack considered herself a bit of an oddity for being so passionate about her traditional language.

As a young teenager, K’eduka Jack considered herself a bit of an oddity for being so passionate about her traditional language.

She and her sister would attend drop-in classes with elders to learn more about Tlingit, a critically endangered language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers in Carcross and Teslin, the Yukon communities where it is spoken.

But they were quickly put off by how slow and unchallenging the pace was.

Fluent Tlingit speakers are generally aged 65 and older, and no Yukon children are learning it as their first language, according to the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Disappointed, Jack kept searching for something more structured and intensive.

Last year, the 24-year-old member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation had a chance encounter with Michele Johnson at Yukon College.

It proved to be the turning point she’d been waiting for.

“I’d been looking for my language my entire life,” Jack said.

“I’ve always been interested in my culture and heritage. But I didn’t want to be a part of something that was going to be a waste of time.”

Johnson, who has a PhD in language revitalization, had previously developed an intensive curriculum for her own native language, Nsyilxcn.

“She came up to me and asked me if I wanted to learn my language, so I said yes,” Jack said.

It wasn’t long before Jack quit her job at a daycare in Teslin and jumped on board with the project full-time.

The pair has since teamed up to create the Tlingit Language Revitalization Association. Their goal is simple: to create new Tlingit speakers.

“Meeting her was the biggest stroke of luck I’ve had in such a long time,” Jack said.

“I’ve never learned so much of my language in such a short amount of time. With her method I managed to learn 300-400 words in a few months, which is more than I’d learned in my entire life.”

Last year, Johnson developed a series of textbooks – called Tlingit 1 – that she taught to Jack and another Tlingit teacher, George Bahm.

For the next few months, they will recruit about a dozen young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 and teach them Tlingit 1.

They’ll even lobby the students’ workplaces for days off to attend the classes.

Jack said there’s a precedent for people taking time off to attend French classes, but none for First Nation classes.

Tlingit 1 will be taught between March and June, while materials for Tlingit 2 are in development and will eventually be taught in either July or August.

It’s anticipated that participants will learn approximately 1,500 words from both courses.

“There are a lot of myths about language revitalization,” Jack said, “including that you have to memorize sentences instead of learning individual words.”

“What I love the most about this is that I’m not a fluent speaker but I can teach this course. I can teach four people, who can teach four people, and it’s a tidal wave effect.”

Johnson said speakers of the Interior Salish languages, located in the Pacific Northwest, have used the method.

“I used the method to become an intermediate speaker, along with a small cohort of youth in the Okanagan,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“We moved into an immersion house for six months and studied the curriculum. In Tlingit, we need to do the added step of writing the curriculum first.

“I’m excited about the potential of applying these methods to Tlingit and feel very positive about our success because K’eduka is such a passionate learner and organizer.”

The six-month project is funded by a grant the team received last year from the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, a federal program funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage that supports language revitalization projects.

Jack said she hopes they can get funding beyond that by starting to develop Tlingit 3.

A final report, textbooks, CDs and other learning materials will be made available by the end of November, all of it free, Jack said.

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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

Just Posted

Commissioner of Yukon Anglique Bernard, in her role as Chancellor of the Order of Yukon, announced the 2020 Order of the Yukon inductees in a statement Dec. 2. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Order of Yukon inductees announced

Ten Yukoners will receive territory’s highest honour

The primary goal of the new relief package for tourism operators is to support the tourism sector, whether they’re private industry or not-for-profit organizations, said Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie McLean. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Relief program offers funds for businesses that rely on tourists for more than half their revenue

Two new streams of funding, in addition to the accommodation relief program, were announced

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: Climate emergency, lite edition

Back in September 2019, Whitehorse City Council declared a climate emergency, to… Continue reading

Yukon Employees’ Union says a lack of staff training and high turnover at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is creating a dangerous situation for underpaid workers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Employees’ Union says lack of training at emergency shelter leading to unsafe situations

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said the staffing policy “is evolving”

Justice Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
All-female justice roster ‘a good step’ for diversity in Yukon Supreme Court

Karen Wenckebach is the third woman appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in history

A sign outside the Yukon Inn Convention Centre indicates Yukoners can get a flu vaccine inside. As of Dec. 4, the vaccinations won’t be available at the convention centre. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse Convention Centre ends flu vaccination service early

Flu vaccinations won’t be available at the Whitehorse Convention Centre after Dec.… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Kindness, shingles and speed limits

Letters to the editor published Dec. 4, 2020

ASDF
COMMENTARY: Land use planning must include industry

Carl Schulze Special to the News This commentary is a response to… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White River First Nation to run for councillors in the 2021 election. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News File)
White River First Nation to elect new chief and council

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White… Continue reading

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new councillor in a byelection held Dec. 3. (Wikimedia Commons)
Watson Lake elects new councillor

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new… Continue reading

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

Most Read