When Doris Roberts came home from residential school, she couldn’t speak with her own mother.
Most of her family, including her grandmother and uncles, couldn’t speak English. And she could no longer speak Han.
“I went to Carcross (residential) school and I lost it there,” she said about her ability to speak the traditional language of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in.
“I came back after four years and I never heard one word my mom say to me. It was hard. And my grandma would talk to me, I don’t know what they talk about. I say, ‘Why you have to talk like that? Talk English to me.’ They just look at me. I got no ear to understand what they say to me. But they were good teachers, patient, and gradually I start to retain it, realize it or not. But it was hard.”
Now, at 73 years old, Roberts is being recognized for her work in keeping the Han language alive, as this year’s Yukon recipient of the Council of the Federation Literacy Award.
In the 1980s Roberts began teaching Han.
She was a part of a group that went over to Tanacross, Alaska, to relearn Tr’ondek Hwech’in stories and songs. This cultural repository existed thanks to an act of foresight of a chief more than a century ago, at a time when gold-rush stampeders were flooding into the Klondike.
Bringing a group with him, Chief Isaac made the trek to their Han cousins and taught them songs and stories for safekeeping.
After Isaac’s lifetime, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s culture and language continued to erode in the face of residential schools.
So when Roberts and her students, under the instruction of Laura Sanford, spent five days in Tanacross in the 1990s, they brought video cameras with them.
“We all scattered out in the village,” Roberts recounted. “Some say, ‘Come back tomorrow,’ some say they don’t want to be taped, and they just talk. You gotta respect that – respect and you go a long way. The best way they can learn, on this side (Yukon), is the tapes. I say you have to watch every move that they make. And I have good students.”
The hardest part of the trip, for Roberts, was the plane ride. She is terrified of flying.
“It took me six months to get on that plane,” she said, laughing. “The time was coming, drawing near, and I had to make up my mind, so I finally did. I say, ‘I’m going, and that’s it! I’m going.’ So I got all my students ready.
“I took a couple Gravol and they give me a little bag, like to throw up in, and I say, ‘This is not big enough, you better give me bigger bag than that!’”
But despite efforts to preserve Han, the language is dying. It is considered one of the most endangered aboriginal languages in the territory, with only Roberts and less than a handful of fluent speakers left.
“These kids, this generation, I don’t know, they seem to be preoccupied,” said Roberts. “But I really hope they do put their minds to it, once and for all, and concentrate on the language. Never mind you trying to beat the next person, never mind you try and be better than the next person – you’re not! You’re supposed to be working together and who cares if you make more money and that sort of thing? It’s teamwork!”
Learning Han is not an easy task, especially starting out, said Roberts. Even if you say something just a little bit wrong, it means something completely different.
“But they have every opportunity to do it,” she said.
It wasn’t so easy for Roberts.
She remembers being looked down on when she tried to learn anything, because of the colour of her skin.
“But I was just as good as the next person – I always had that in my head,” she said. “And I got respect. I said, ‘I’m not going to back down.’ All my tests come out 100 per cent. (Now) nobody ever wanna speak to me or look at me sideways cause I have that mouth to tell them off. I’m not afraid of them. I even told the government that. I say, ‘You controlled my life for years, and now I’m getting my language back.’”
Roberts will accept her literacy award in a ceremony at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City today. International Literacy Day is Saturday, September 8.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at