Unlocking the secrets of an older native language

William Firth is fascinated by the history of his native language, Gwich’in. A fluent speaker, Firth is the director of language programs for…

William Firth is fascinated by the history of his native language, Gwich’in.

A fluent speaker, Firth is the director of language programs for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Ft. McPherson, NWT.

He was recently in Whitehorse to attend a three-day workshop on Tukudh, as the oldest written form of the Gwich’in language is called.

It was developed in the 1860s through a collaboration between Church of England missionary Robert McDonald and Gwich’in speakers in the Northwest Territories and Alaska. 

Thanks to McDonald and his hard-working team of translators, one of whom was his Gwich’in wife Julia, the first written form of Gwich’in is preserved in the Tukudh version of the Bible as well as in traditional prayers and hymn books that are still used in Gwich’in communities.

But Firth, who at 45 is part of a younger generation of Gwich’in speakers, doesn’t read Tukudh with complete accuracy or understanding.

The language itself has changed since McDonald’s time, so the translations preserve an archaic form.

Firth learned to read his native language as it is written in the modern, more accurate writing system developed in the 1970s by linguist John Ritter for the Canadian dialects.

So why is Firth interested in studying a form of the language that no one today fully uses or understands?

“The biggest thing that touches me when I think about it is the pride in it,” he says.

“There’s so much history, so much richness there. There was so much work involved when Archdeacon McDonald worked with our people, and yet many of them today don’t realize that.”

Gwich’in is the only Yukon native language that has a tradition of literacy going back almost 150 years.

Its continuous written history makes it unique among the other Athapaskan languages of North America.

In fact, few indigenous languages in North America can claim a longer continuous written history.

Firth points out that this tradition of literacy using spiritual texts connects today’s Gwich’in with their parents and grandparents, many of whom learned to read and write using the books produced by McDonald and his translators.

“Archdeacon McDonald did a lot of work with the elders in our community, and yet their great-grandchildren aren’t aware of it,” he says.

Along with other participants from the Yukon, NWT and Alaska, and with the assistance of the staff at the Yukon Native Language Centre, Firth spent the three days of the workshop painstakingly deciphering some of the old Tukudh texts and writing them down in modern Gwich’in.

Doing so, he explains, is a way to keep the old traditions alive and to render them meaningful for younger Gwich’in.

But it’s demanding work, even with the assistance of highly fluent Gwich’in elders.

“We tried to decipher the Ten Commandments, but we found it took us a long time because some of the terms are no longer known,” he notes.

“Even the word for ‘law’ is so old — we’ve sat down to decipher it, but we haven’t found the stem or root of the word.

“They all know the word means ‘law’ because they have the English translation, but where the Tukudh word comes from, nobody knows.

“And even the word for commandment, we don’t know the root of that either. Where did it come from? Was there some sort of government at that time in the Gwich’in community? The elders today don’t have that information.”

The question of why today’s Gwich’in are interested in preserving texts from a religious tradition that some might feel was imposed on them is a delicate one, but Firth has a ready answer.

“I see it as a completely separate issue from the residential school situation. That was way after Archdeacon McDonald. To me, studying Tukudh is a way to heal the wounds of those years. It connects us with the ancestors.”

Firth remembers hearing stories from his grandmother about the impact of McDonald’s teachings on the community.

“When Archdeacon McDonald first came, he was preaching and he had an interpreter, and it was like the time when Jesus spoke to the multitudes.

“People used to sit there through lunch hour, through supper, just to hear what he had to say. It must have been so inspiring and interesting to them.”

But he doesn’t know why McDonald’s teachings had such an effect.

“Things like that keep me interested and wanting to know more. Our people didn’t have a written language, but they had their own traditions and beliefs.

“When I learn something new in these sessions, I wonder — did they feel like that too? What was it that kept them interested? It’s fascinating, that’s what it is.”

Firth says that it’s a very powerful experience for all the workshop participants to hear the old language and to sing the old hymns in Tukudh.

“A lot of them say, ‘It lifts my spirits to hear it. It really makes me feel good.’ It brings us together. It’s healing.

“The elders love coming to the Yukon Native Language Centre to share their knowledge and seek out answers.”

But each session leads to more questions, which is why Firth is eager to see a course set up where people could do research projects into the history of Tukudh.

“If a person found out that their great-great-grandmother was involved in developing Tukudh, it would give them that connection. And if that person is connected, what else can he or she do?

“Maybe he or she might want to learn the language. I’m trying to find something that will entice them into the field.

“I’m hoping to be able to find some money to get people to do the kind of historical research we need. It could be a very powerful incentive to get young people involved in language learning.”

Firth himself grew up speaking Gwich’in with his grandmother during summers spent at his family’s fish camp, about 12 kilometres above Ft. McPherson on the Peel River, and attributes his interest in the language to her.

“She constantly pushed me to try to regain it. It gave me a sense of pride in who I was and where I came from.”

Firth is also eager to enlist the help of Mark MacDonald (no relation to Archdeacon McDonald), the national bishop for all indigenous persons in the Anglican Church of Canada, who attended the Tukudh session as a special guest.

“We don’t have very many Tukudh Bibles and hymn books and prayer books in our communities,” explains Firth, “so we’ve been asking him to help us reprint these materials.”

It was Mark MacDonald, as the former bishop of Alaska, who supported the Tukudh sessions organized by the Yukon Native Language Centre and held in summers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In Fairbanks, the participants were also encouraged and supported by St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, which hosted the services they held entirely in the Gwich’in language.

With the participation of Gwich’in people from across the North, the services were powerful and moving experiences for both Gwich’in and non-Gwich’in attendees.

Firth admits that the work of helping to preserve the Gwich’in language can become overwhelming at times.

“But then I put that aside and see what I’m doing it for in the long run. I’m trying to be a marker for younger people to see that they can get involved. I’m trying to inspire other people.”

Submitted courtesy of the Yukon Native Language Centre.

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