In January 2019, the United Nations (UN) declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This was meant to increase awareness and spur actions to promote and protect Indigenous languages around the world. According to the UN, an estimated 6,700 (or 40 per cent) of the world’s languages are in danger of disappearing. The majority belong to Indigenous peoples. Gwich’in, the other seven Yukon Indigenous languages (Hän, Kaska, Northern Tuchone, Southern Tuchone, Tagish, Tinglit, Upper Tanana) and the majority of Canadian Indigenous languages are identified as endangered.
Within this context, and understanding the importance of both language and storytelling to Indigenous culture, Gwaandak Theatre has partnered with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government. This partnership has produced a series of radio plays entitled Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together)—Vuntut Gwitchin Stories. The radio plays are based on stories from the village of Old Crow, Yukon, ranging from before contact with settlers to contemporary stories.
Elders, community members and theatre artists collaborated in Old Crow more than three years ago, taking part in storytelling sessions, theatre workshops and public readings. They also co-wrote and performed in the radio plays.
Leonard Linklater, Gwaandak Theatre co-founder, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen and one of the creative team members, believes that theatre is an important tool for healing.
“Our language and culture have been heavily disrupted through the colonization process. Language, education, spirituality, ties to the land, everything has been affected. I am looking for tools to regain all of that. Storytelling through theatre seems like a natural fit because there has always been storytelling and it has been very theatrical in Indigenous culture. It’s a great way of re-introducing stories, moral teachings and history in an entertaining way,” he said. “These stories hold the rhythm of the land in them and are a source of strength in a challenging environment. Language grows out of the land. The stories reflect our relationship to that land. The more you are tied to the land, through strong roots, the more confident you are to grow as a person. These stories also teach non Gwich’in people the importance of the caribou, land and water to the people of North Yukon.”
Patti Flather, Gwaandak Theatre co-founder and one of the creators of the radio plays, discussed what she saw as the biggest challenges in creating these plays.
“One of the challenges was just getting started. We had to develop trust. We needed to allow the people contributing to work at their own pace, to find a rhythm. Sometimes I needed to slow down and listen better.”
Linklater expanded on the steps involved in the process, beginning with Vuntut Gwitchin Heritage Department’s archival recordings of long-ago stories in Gwich’in with English translations.
“In some cases, such as with Sarah (Joseph) Abel Chitze’s telling of Vah Srigwehdli’—The One Who Survived, we would hear the story as told in Gwich’in, review and discuss the English translations, then dramatize that in English and translate the script back into Gwich’in, while making sure elders and the community approved.”
While Linklater thinks that saving a language ultimately comes down to communities and families trying to reclaim it and reintroduce it, he also believes that these plays have already been a success.
“They are a success because people are talking about them and hearing the lessons that these stories tell. Creating the radio plays was also very empowering for the people involved, as writers and performers.”
Even Linklater learned something about his people through the creation of the radio plays.
“I learned how open they are telling a story. They just dove in and they were laughing all the time. We saw how much they cared and how much they would go out of their comfort zone to tell their stories. That surprised me and they did a great job.”
Flather expanded on that growth in participants.
“There are many performers in the plays who didn’t think that they could speak Gwich’in, but working through the stories, they realized they knew more than they thought and are speaking Gwich’in in the radio plays.”
Gwaandak Theatre has been empowering Indigenous and northern voices since 2000. As the only Indigenous-centred theatre company in the Yukon, Gwaandak is committed to presenting artistic programming that promotes meaningful reconciliation and deeper understanding between Yukoners, both Indigenous and settlers. Gwaandak’s stories explore themes of decolonization, cultural identity, social justice and human rights. One meaning of the word Gwaandak in the radio
Flather and Linklater explained that while Gwandaak has changed professionally over the years by getting its own office space, having more permanent staff, developing a board of directors and having more national touring, it has always challenged people, utilized non-traditional theatre spaces and looked to engage Yukoners.
Linklater emphasized the importance of diversity.
“We try to aim for engaging the communities. I think it is important that they are represented and reflected in work done by Yukoners. It is important to fulfill our mandate to reflect diverse voices.”
The radio play podcasts, as well as illustrated script booklets, in Gwich’in and in English, have been released on VuntutStories.ca and are free to download. The play podcasts and booklets will be widely shared with radio, schools, First Nations and the public.