Doris Roberts hates to fly, but when it came time to go to Tanacross, Alaska, to retrieve the songs and stories that Chief Isaac had taken there for safe-keeping many decades earlier, she knew she had to do it.
Roberts had lost much of her Hän language while at residential school from 1946 to 1949, and she came back to Dawson at age 10 to find that she could no longer understand her grandmother. She credits her uncles, Jimmy Wood and Stanley Roberts, with having the patience and persistence to help her regain her language.
“They talk away to me and finally it started to come back to me,” she says.
What she never expected was that she would herself become a language teacher. Her Uncle Stanley told her that she would, but she didn’t believe him.
“I never knew I’d have that patience for teaching, because I’m not a patient kind of person, but I did have that patience.”
In addition to teaching a younger generation how to speak the language she worked with her brother Edward, whom she calls the last fluent speaker of the Hän language, to translate a useful vocabulary book from the Hän people who live in Eagle, Alaska, where the dialect is slightly different.
There was more than just the language involved in reclaiming the culture and part of that was contained in the material that was taken to Tanacross. The plan was to go there with her language students.
Some people had gone over there previously, but they hadn’t brought anything back with them.
“So we got hold of Laura Sanford, an elder from Tanacross and made plans. But it took them six months to get me on that plane. I wouldn’t fly.”
She kept putting it off until finally she knew she couldn’t do that any longer.
“I went home and I said a little prayer: ‘What is there so frightening that I can’t get up in the air?’ So I said, ‘I’m goin’ right now. Get my ticket ready.'”
She took six students with her, each one responsible for a different piece of equipment: camera, video, tapes.
“Six of them all had little things to look after.”
They flew to Fairbanks and drive to Tanacross, where Laura Sanford met them and gave them supper.
“I told her we were here to bring those songs back home, and she told us the story of how Chief Isaac brought them over for safekeeping.
“We were there five days, with the video camera going, and she sang for us and tell us story.”
Then Roberts assigned her students the task of interviewing people in the town and recording stories from them.
“I said they had to phone people before they go into their homes. Ask the elder if you can come in and what time you should be there, ’cause you just don’t walk in the houses and say ‘I want story’. You never do that.
“Those elders, they were comfortable with that, so each and every one of them had an elder to go to.
“Then they had a potlatch and I said, ‘You watch how they act and how they sing.’ The men cook; all the men cook breakfast, supper, and the women just brought in the food.
Laura Sanford introduced them to everyone, ‘These kids are here to learn their songs. They wanna take it home.'”
The big drum began to beat and the Dawson students sat back to watch, but Roberts told them to get in there and do whatever they saw the oldest person there doing.
Back at home, the group tried to set down everything they had learned and then invited Sanford and her sister to come to Dawson and check it over. She was there for a couple of days, doing some more singing and teaching, and then returned six months later.
At that time the Dawson people sang for her and she told them they had done well.
It took some time, but Edward and Doris taught the songs to staff from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and slowly the Hän Singers came to be. This group sings at Tombstone, the Commissioner’s Tea and Ball, the Dawson City Music Festival and at all formal events involving the First Nation.
Recently they sang the “Welcome Song” at the official opening of ?enähjin Tr’ëdëk (the Gathering Place), the new outdoor classroom at the Robert Service School.
They didn’t get all the songs. There were 12 in all and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in learned six of them. The others may be lost now that Sanford has died.
For her work, Roberts was recognized on September 8 with a Council of the Federation Literacy medallion.
The award recognizes outstanding achievement, innovative practice and excellence in literacy, including family, Aboriginal, health, workplace and community literacy and is given to recognize the excellence of educators, volunteers, learners, and community organizations (including non-governmental organizations) and businesses in each province and territory. Thirteen awards are given out annually across the nation.
Roberts was nominated by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Yukon Learn, and the award was presented by Yukon’s minister of education, Scott Kent.