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Promoting Gwich'in language through prayer and song

Gwich'in people from across the North gathered in Fairbanks, Alaska, recently for a Holy Communion service conducted entirely in Tukudh.

Gwich’in people from across the North gathered in Fairbanks, Alaska, recently for a Holy Communion service conducted entirely in Tukudh, the most traditional form of the Gwich’in language.

The hymns, readings, prayers, sermon, and blessing were sung and spoken in Gwich’in.

Many people traveled from Dawson City, Whitehorse, Fort McPherson and eight Alaskan communities to study and prepare for the service held at the filled-to-overflowing St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on June 12.

“It went really well,” said organizer Allan Hayton of Fairbanks, a language teacher and vestry member at St. Matthew’s. “Elders are worried that the Tukudh services are slipping away, so we must pick it up and begin learning and carrying it forward.”

This marks the first time since 2003 that a service entirely in the 19th century dialect was held at St. Matthews. Since then, many of the elders involved have passed on, such as the Rev. Dr. Ellen Bruce of Old Crow and the Rev. Mardow Solomon of Fort Yukon.

William Firth and Joanne Snowshoe travelled from Fort McPherson for the event.

“It was quite the journey to get there: Edmonton, Seattle, up to Fairbanks. Two long days of travel,” Firth said. “We were determined to be there and participate with the group.”

Firth, language manager for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, noted the Alaskan Gwich’in people work very hard to comprehend the Tukudh dialect, which is more nearly like the Gwich’in spoken today in Canada.

Hayton said, “Even our most fluent ministers like Trimble Gilbert and Mary Nathaniel and Bella Jean Savino, they still find the Tukudh challenging to read and interpret.”

Hayton said he relies on people like Joanne Snowshoe to guide him in pronunciation.

On the other hand, Alaskan Gwich’in shared their deep knowledge of the musical traditions.

“There are still quite a few of the hymns that we don’t know really well, but the Alaskans have maintained the tunes and share them with us,” Firth said. “That was one thing that I found very inspirational.”

Gwich’in is the only Yukon native language with a tradition of literacy dating back almost 150 years. Its continuous written history makes it unique not only among Athabaskan languages but among most indigenous languages in North America.

Tukudh is the older written form. It was developed over a 40-year period starting in the 1860s through a remarkable collaboration between Archdeacon Robert McDonald, a part-Ojibwa Church of England missionary from Manitoba, and Gwich’in speakers from the N.W.T to Alaska. The translations they compiled contain features of many dialects, not just one.

An indigenous Christian leadership developed that carries on today. Tukudh Bibles, hymns and prayer books remain in use.

Ongoing study includes annual Gwich’in literacy sessions hosted at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse each November, attracting participants from across the North.

As with any language, Gwich’in has evolved. “The vocabulary in McDonald’s time, we call it higher language as opposed to what we speak today,” said Firth.

Firth would like to see more research and courses into Tukudh texts, and more sharing with younger generations.

“It’s a huge historical document based on language,” he said. “There is so much richness in this literacy tradition that people can learn from.”

Hayton said he was especially pleased that Rev. Trimble Gilbert, 79, was able to travel to Fairbanks to preside and preach at the St. Matthew’s service.

Gilbert comes from a long tradition of Gwich’in clergy in Arctic Village, Alaska, including his father, the late Rev. James Gilbert.

“He really had a lot to offer to our group during the days that we were together,” Hayton said. “He’s also a really powerful singer. It just made everyone else’s singing that much stronger.”

Hayton sat down with Gilbert after the service. “Just seeing how pleased he was made it all worthwhile for me. He wants to keep the momentum going, getting together and learning.”

Elder and deacon Percy Henry of Dawson City, fluent in both Gwich’in and Han, attended with his son Peter. The Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, the Rev. Scott Fisher and the Rev. Bella Jean Savino of St. Matthew’s Fairbanks also participated.

Yukon Native Language Centre director John Ritter and YNLC programs co-ordinator Linda Harvey made the drive from Whitehorse to take part in the event.

The language centre’s role, Ritter explained, is to support all Yukon First Nation language communities in ways they identify as essential to further their languages.

“Uniquely with the Gwich’in there was an entire Bible - not just the New Testament - printed in 1898,” said Ritter. “By that time, the hymnal was in full use, and the prayer book was being translated.”

Ritter said the Gwich’in developed and passed on literacy very early on. And the message from Gwich’in communities is: “We want our younger people to know our traditions.”

The fit between English pronunciation and McDonald’s writing system is challenging in some respects, said Ritter, a linguist who developed a modern Gwich’in writing system for Canadian dialects in the 1970s. “The archdeacon’s T is really pronounced more like a D, and his K is pronounced more like a G.”

In literacy workshops, Ritter said it’s common for everyone to rely on an expert elder speaker such as Joanne Snowshoe to read a Tukudh sentence out loud, and for a younger person to re-transcribe that on a white board in the modern system.

“The training here reflects the desire of Gwich’in people to learn the traditional language,” he said. “YNLC provides a place where people come together and share what they know of the Tukudh tradition.”

The question of why many Gwich’in today are dedicated to preserving texts from a religious tradition that some might feel was imposed on them is a delicate one.

Hayton said he knows his people had spirituality and deep connection with the universe before Christianity, and believes they complement each other in many ways.

“For me,” said Hayton, “it just reminds me of growing up in Arctic Village. The church services were all in Gwich’in. It was all Tukudh. It reminds me of all of our elders.”

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