“Dänch'á Éh ma,” I begin the conversation with my mother in a standard Southern Tutchone
greeting, uncertain and nervous about my speaking abilities.
“Éyigē shrō kwäthän,” she replies. “My feelings are very good.”
We are closing a generational gap that transpired in the last century in Northwestern Canada, as colonization took hold in the territories.
As we sit on the banks of Chū Nį Quän, or The Yukon River, my mother explains to me that there are different names for this river depending on where you are from.
“In our language, for this section of the river, we call it Chū Nį Quän. It translates into: Chū is water, Nį is face, and Quän is shining, or bright. So when you look at the river, you can see how beautiful and shining and bright the water is.”
We are Tà'än Kwàch'än and the language group is Southern Tutchone. The dialect my mother is teaching me is Tà'än Kwàch'än Kwįnjé.
“Generically, we would call a river täghá. This is a big river, so it would be täghá shrō.” Mom continues her lesson. She laughs and adds, “Johnny Cash would appreciate that.”
While Southern Tutchone was used in my home growing up, the words were often peppered into the English that was the main language. I don’t think I realized I was hearing words that were not English until well into my schooling. I would hear my mother and her siblings speak with each other and my grandparents in Southern Tutchone, though the fact that I did not understand this language was not as big a concern to me as was getting out of my homework and playing with my sisters.
The assimilation of First Nations people in Canada included a concerted effort to abolish the language and cultural practices of the people through the residential and public school systems.
Why the language was not taught directly and explicitly in my childhood home is my mother’s story to tell.
In 1980, French immersion was first introduced in Whitehorse. I was in kindergarten and my parents were quick to register me, and later my younger sister. They wanted to ensure we had every advantage our education could offer.
This is also the language of my father, who spoke only French until he was 18 years old. That aboriginal languages weren’t given the same consideration at that time did not seem to be on the radar of the board of education. This has since changed, with most schools in the Yukon now offering aboriginal language classes.
It is May, and we use this opportunity to discuss the birds that are returning to the area. “We are going to start with a root word,” Mom explains. “t'ūá. It means bird, and it generally encompasses all the small birds. And it is spring, so what do we do? We are out there looking for birds nests, so we just add the word t'òe.”
I repeat the word. At least, I think I do. “Tow.”
“T'òe,” Mom says again. “You have to pop the ‘t.’”
The language rules are different from anything I know in English or in French. The language is guttural in places, nasal in others, with popping sounds differentiating one word from another. That isn’t the only difference I notice. The language is very poetic and descriptive in nature, as with the name of the river.
“If you only know two words, use those words,” Mom says often. “Teach them to somebody.”
Her tone is always encouraging, and there is never a sense that you are going to embarrass her or anyone else. Nonetheless, she is quick to underscore the importance of proper pronunciation. If you change the pronunciation of any word even slightly, you end up having a very different conversation.
Our conversations are recorded and transcribed to our website, www.CGenRadio.com, on a feature we call “Coffee with Mom.” The audio track is updated and a transcript of the Southern Tutchone words is included in the Latin alphabet spelling as well as phonetic.
The goal is to offer a friendly conversational experience, as the listener learns along with me. The hope is that the angst and anxiety of making mistakes that can stop so many of us in our tracks will be lifted as I make my mistakes on the record. There is always laughter and reassurance that I’m progressing well.
The internet has changed the way language is accessed over the last 20 years. Many Indigenous languages in Canada are available online with larger language groups such as Anishnabee and Cree offering online lessons and dictionaries. This is the same for the Indigenous language groups in the Yukon, with Facebook pages devoted to encouraging users to speak their language while posting phrases and words.
A more comprehensive format can be found through the website of the Yukon Native Language Centre, www.YNLC.ca. There are eight aboriginal languages used here. Seven are from the Athapaskan family, which spreads from central Alaska through northwestern Canada to Hudson Bay. The website lists those seven as Gwich'in, Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, and Upper Tanana.
Their interactive website includes descriptions of the eight language groups in the Yukon, as well as languages related as Athapaskan languages, such as Navajo, Tanacross, Tahltan, Ahtna.
On each language page, the Yukon Native Language Centre website offers lessons where the user can learn at their own pace. When the cursor is hovered over the word written in the language, an English translation pops up. When the word is clicked on, the user can hear the word spoken by a traditional speaker.
“We are currently updating our website,” explains Mary Jane Allison, faculty advisor with the Yukon Native Language Centre. “We’re making it easier for people to access. It used to be that you required a computer in order to engage the interactive voice. Now, using a handheld device such as a phone or tablet, people can go to our website and access the language as well.”
The Yukon Native Language Centre, located at the Yukon College Ayamdigut Campus in Whitehorse, also has hard copy lessons in books and audio.
There is also the option of pursuing post-secondary studies in aboriginal languages.
“The Yukon College offers an Introduction to Native Languages,” Allison says. “In the recent past they have been focusing on Southern Tutchone and it offers the participants the opportunity to learn about Southern Tutchone – and the other aboriginal languages in the Yukon.”
Mom and I wrap up our language lesson by the river. “Shrō nį thį, nį k'än tá,” I say to my mom by way of thanking her and saying, “Look after yourself.”
I’m sure to pop that “t.”
“Tah,” Mom corrects me. “You don’t pop the ‘t’ in that one.
I repeat my mistake. “T’ah.”
“You’ll get it.” Mom says, and we end by breaking into laughter at my effort. There is always laughter, the most common of aboriginal languages.