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Carcross elder steps forward to continue language work of mother and sister

Respected Tlingit elder Norman James sounds like an old hand when it comes to making recordings of his language. A fluent speaker of Tlingit from Carcross, James is working with the Yukon Native Language Centre to produce new audio files.

Respected Tlingit elder Norman James sounds like an old hand when it comes to making recordings of his language.

A fluent speaker of Tlingit from Carcross, James is working with the Yukon Native Language Centre to produce new audio files for the online language lessons available through YNLC’s website.

He’s a natural, it turns out, according to staff linguist Doug Hitch, who conducts the recordings. “He has an FM radio voice and good microphone sense,” says Hitch.

“I’ve watched different people and when they get the mic too close to the mouth, they don’t sound right,” says James. “Even the bingo announcer!” he adds with a grin.

James is continuing a long-standing family tradition in helping to preserve the Tlingit language. His late mother, Lucy Wren, who taught Tlingit at the Ghuch Tla Community School in Carcross for over 20 years, also recorded Tlingit language lessons at YNLC. Her cassette tape and print booklet were one of YNLC’s earliest language lesson sets.

Today James’s niece, Marlene Smith, is the third generation of the family to teach Tlingit at the Carcross school. She succeeded her late mother, Mamie Smith, who was the daughter of Lucy Wren.

“We’ve known for some time that we needed to upgrade the Tlingit language lessons that Norman’s mother did,” explains YNLC’s founding director, John Ritter. “It was a very early product, it wasn’t recorded with the advanced technology we have now.

“Norman has a strong baritone voice so I asked him, ‘Would you be willing to come in and work with us?’”

Last October, James spent three days at YNLC recording a full set of language lessons, working with Hitch, staff linguist Dr. Andre Bourcier, and YNLC’s acting director Roseanna Goodman.

Lucy Wren’s own audio lessons were played sentence by sentence as they worked, but James didn’t simply mimic his mother’s pronunciation. “He brought his own stamp to bear on it,” says Ritter. “He was very careful about each Tlingit word and phrase. It was a real collaborative process.”

Those lessons are now posted on the YNLC website at The written transcriptions are being checked by renowned linguist Dr. Jeff Leer, who has worked with Tlingit speakers in Alaska,

Yukon and B.C. for over 50 years. “We want to make sure that we present a text that is faithful to what Norman is actually pronouncing,” explains Ritter.

Tlingit is distantly related to the Athapaskan language family (to which all other Yukon native languages belong). Spoken by the coastal Tlingit people who controlled trade between Europeans and Yukon First Nations,

Tlingit began spreading into the interior from Alaska two to three centuries ago.

In the Yukon today, the Tlingit language is spoken mainly in the communities of Carcross and Teslin, as well as in the Atlin, B.C. area. Like other Yukon languages, Tlingit has more than one dialect. For Tlingit there are three: Carcross/Tagish (the dialect spoken by James), Teslin, and Atlin.

“The written transcriptions have to be done very carefully to match the dialect of the language being spoken,” says Ritter. “Each dialect is unique and important.”

Nevertheless, the different dialects are similar enough that all speakers of Tlingit can understand each other.

The contribution of a fluent speaker like Norman James is vital in preserving the language and recording it for future generations. “Norman is picking up where his sister and his mother left off,” says Ritter. “He’s coming forward and taking ownership. It’s a big step to put yourself out as a representative of a speech community.”

Since the early 1990s YNLC has produced more than 30 versions of audio lessons for Yukon languages. Since 2003 a dozen versions have been made freely accessible online, beginning with the Ft. McPherson dialect of Gwich’in that was recorded by the late Mary Jane Kunnizzi.

As Doug Hitch explains, technology has changed immensely in the dozen years since then, creating challenges in keeping YNLC’s catalogue of online audio materials available.

There’s no easy way, for example, to convert the oldest online materials into the latest formats.

“We can use the archived sound files and transcriptions together with the latest technology to make updated versions of the products, but it’s still a daunting amount of work,” says Hitch.

Apart from his recording work, James spends three hours a day in the classroom at Carcross school with his niece, native language instructor Marlene Smith. He received his YNLC certificate in native language teacher training at Yukon College in 2013.

“We work together,” he explains. “Everything I say in Tlingit, Marlene’s got it all written down. The students too, they write. You give them a sentence in English, they write it on the board in Tlingit. That’s how good they’re getting to be. When they’re stuck on something, I help them out.”

And because the students start learning Tlingit in pre-school, they already know a lot of the language when they reach Grade 1, James adds.

James remembers trapping as a younger man on his trapline in B.C., just across the border, and selling those furs at the Matthew Watson General Store in Carcross, which operated like a trading post.

“Matthew Watson spoke Tlingit as good as anyone else,” says James. “He asked his customers what they wanted – tea, sugar, coffee – and it was all in Tlingit. That’s how good he was.”

James himself grew up speaking his language with his mother, uncles, and aunts. Too old for residential school, he never lost his language. “I held onto it, it stayed with me.”

As for his new role recording audio lessons, he says, “The kids in Carcross have heard me on the computer. They like it, they’re interested in the language.” He’s surprised, he says, but “some of us thought the language would come back some day if we work at it the right way.”

Now, with the help of the language centre, that hope is becoming reality. “I guess we didn’t give up. We never give up.”

This article was provided courtesy of the Yukon Native Language Centre. Information on YNLC’s training programs can be found at