College graduates 5 First Nation language instructors

Doris Allen has the rare gift of being proficient in teaching two distinct Yukon aboriginal languages, Gwich'in and Southern Tutchone.

Doris Allen has the rare gift of being proficient in teaching two distinct Yukon aboriginal languages, Gwich’in and Southern Tutchone.

She grew up in Old Crow, so Gwich’in is her mother tongue. She learned Southern Tutchone through many years of residence in Haines Junction and Klukshu with her late husband, Grand Chief Harry Allen, and his extended family.

She’s one of five language instructors active in communities throughout the territory who recently graduated from programs offered by the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College in Whitehorse.

Allen was the only instructor this year to receive her diploma, in the ceremony at the Yukon Arts Centre on May 16.

“I worked hard for that, I really put every effort I have to do that, so I’m really proud of myself,” Allen says.

Allen earned the two-year diploma after completing her three-year certificate at the language centre.

This year’s certificate graduates are Bella Bresse of Carmacks, Kathy Magun of Watson Lake, Cresenthia Melancon of Mayo and Marion Schafer of Old Crow.

“They’re all very dedicated to their students and have a strong commitment to the revitalization of their languages,” says Mary Jane Allison, acting language programs coordinator.

Allen moved to Haines Junction as an adult, where she joined St. Elias School as an educational assistant.

Living in Southern Tutchone territory, Allen says she decided to take night classes three times weekly in that language for an entire winter.

“That landed me at my job teaching Southern Tutchone,” she says.

Allen also taught Gwich’in and assisted with Southern Tutchone in Whitehorse high schools. Last fall she returned to St. Elias, teaching Southern Tutchone in K-3 classes.

“I love working with younger students. They’re just so eager to learn and so easy to work with,” she says.

As part of her diploma, Allen completed a special project. St. Elias students created individual storybooks which Allen translated into Southern Tutchone.

With the kindergartens, Allen led group projects on big pieces of cardboard with winter and summer themes “so they could see it on paper – they could imagine it.” She added Southern Tutchone names for everything from animals, to snow on the mountains, to flowers and berries.

Kathy Magun, a Kaska teacher at Johnson Elementary, says her language is an important part of who she is as a Kaska First Nation person and residential school survivor.

“Kaska language was my first language so that really helped me tremendously in my training along the way,” she says.

When she began working with Kaska again, Magun says “it was like I reawakened the language that was waiting dormant within me.”

Magun says some people question the value of learning aboriginal languages, but she says education in one’s minority language is a basic human right.

She says various studies show numerous lifelong benefits for children who learn a second language early in life – including improved reasoning and problem-solving and ability to learn additional languages. Magun adds that First Nations children who are connected to their cultural heritage and ancestry in school have stronger self-esteem, which is vital for overall learning.

Magun says she appreciates all languages and rejoices in hearing them spoken.

As for Kaska, “we have a really kind language,” she says. She recounts her young students asking her how to say “shut up” in Kaska. She explained to them that there’s no phrasing for that.

“I found my language is gentle, healing is I guess the word,” she says.

“It was kind of emotional for me to walk into the arts centre with a cap and gown, but it was also a special day for me,” says Marion Schafer of Old Crow, who teaches Gwich’in at Chief Zheh Gittlit School.

Three of her grandchildren were there supporting her. “I felt so proud that day for completing my three years,” Shafer adds.

When she arrived back in Old Crow, she received graduation cards that co-worker Randall Kendi and the students had made.

“With the Grades 1, 2 and 3 it said, `I love you, Mrs. Schafer, you are a good teacher and congratulations on a job well down.’ Oh, I took that to heart.”

“What really helps me in my teaching is my fluency,” says Schafer, whose parents spoke Gwich’in to her growing up.

Cresenthia Melancon, 25, is among the younger generation of language instructors. She didn’t grow up speaking Northern Tutchone but took school language classes taught by her grandmother Catherine Germaine.

“At school, I always enjoyed going to class because I could see her teach me,” Melancon says. “She’s also my inspiration.”

Melancon works part-time at JV Clark School in Mayo and says she still seeks her grandmother’s language tips. She says she incorporates plenty of games into her classes.

“That’s the best way to learn language, when you incorporate fun with it,” she says. “I don’t want language class to be boring!”

Melancon says she also speaks Northern Tutchone at home with her two-year-old son.

Besides her work at JV Clark, she’s teaching a three-week language course this month with elder Mary Battaja through Na Cho Nyak Dun First Nation. Melancon says she plans to pursue her diploma next with the language centre.

Her advice to young people considering a career in native language instruction: “I’d say, ‘Go for it!’”

That’s an endorsement welcomed by Mary Jane Allison and language centre colleague Linda Harvey, the urban programs coordinator.

Allison, 29, was the first native language instructor coming from the Yukon public school system.

“I would like to see more people enroll into the entry-level certificate program,” Allison says.

Allison and Harvey say the language centre offers a unique learning experience in a small group setting.

Harvey says each year she visits each certificate trainee twice in their community. Trainees also attend fall and spring workshops at the language centre, plus a literacy workshop focusing on their language.

She says trainees must find a practicum placement in a school or community setting and work with a mentor or “speaker model,” but the language centre provides support to trainees who face challenges.

“We don’t teach the language,” Harvey says. “But they learn it as they’re learning to teach,” Allison says.

Since 1986, the language centre, administered by the Council of Yukon First Nations and funded by the Government of Yukon, has produced 103 certificate graduates (85 from the Yukon) and 34 diploma graduates (31 from the Yukon).

Ten instructors have gone on to complete associate of applied science degrees in native language education with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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

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

Just Posted

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

A Housing First building on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street will be taken over by the Council of Yukon First Nations and John Howard Society later this month. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CYFN, John Howard Society take over downtown Housing First residence

The organizations have pledged culturally appropriate service for its many Indigenous residents

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. Politicians return for the spring sitting of the assembly March 4. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Analysis: What to expect in spring sitting of the legislature

They’re back on March 4, but election speculation is looming large

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read