Efforts by both the Gwich'in Tribal Council and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to establish programs to keep their traditional languages alive are an excellent first start to saving both mother tongues, but need more government support to ensure the language stays active at all stages of development.
Getting youth to speak Gwich'in throughout the day at the Children's First Centre is setting the stage, but once these children are old enough for regular schooling, there will need to be programming in place to keep them speaking their language as they wade their way through history, mathematics, science and literature.
Fortunately, the schools in the region make traditional knowledge education a regular priority, particularly on-the-land exercises in hunting, trapping and survival. So it would not be a huge leap in curriculum to begin integrating traditional language studies into such classes. The chief obstacles being securing the funds to cover the costs and a need for adults who can speak the language well enough for the children to be able to practice it.
To the latter, both the GTC and IRC are laying a strong groundwork too, with the GTC hosting two language roundtables last fall to help adults get some practice in Gwich'in, while the IRC hosts weekly lessons. The more adults who are able to speak their traditional languages, the easier it will be to transmit them on to their children.
These are important first steps, but there needs to be more work done to ensure the impact of these initial steps is permanent. Having made several unsuccessful attempts to learn a second language in my lifetime, I can attest that language is very difficult to maintain and easy to lose.
More funding is needed, from either the GNWT or Ottawa or preferably both, to help these programs build on their momentum. Using the education system and some strategically placed programs, these small programs could blossom into something huge.
Language lessons broadcast on Facebook live are excellent, but the number of students who could be reached would be even greater if such lessons were expanded to the numerous adult institutions around us. Language learning opportunities should be exist for GNWT employees who deal with the public, so people are able to communicate in both Gwich'in and Inuvialuktun.
Opportunities could exist in rehabilitation to help people take control of their lives with language revitalization as well. People who feel lost and disconnected from the world and wind up in the corrections or addictions systems may be able to find relief in learning their historic languages.
Alternatively, people held up in a medical facility for treatment for any length of time might be able to find a productive way to pass the time learning languages. If you build it, they will come.
These are just a few ideas, of course. But if we’re as serious about saving these languages, we need to support their champions and get people speaking them in as many places as possible. And if the early success of these programs shows us anything, the appetite to keep these languages alive is very strong.
We would be doing a great injustice by not feeding that appetite until it is full.