Artwork teaching intricacies of describing movement in Gwich’in. Art by Susanne Sampson and taken from the book Yeedak Ts’at Yeetthan (Up and Down) Photo courtesy Andrew Cienski
Artwork teaching intricacies of describing movement in Gwich’in. Art by Susanne Sampson and taken from the book Yeedak Ts’at Yeetthan (Up and Down) Photo courtesy Andrew Cienski

What’s the key to saving a language? Get people speaking it while they’re young.

John Norbert is a Gwichya Gwich’in speaker in Tsiigehtchic. For the last five years he’s been collaborating with other Elders and Andeloo Language Revitalization as part of efforts by the Gwich’in tribal council to preserve their language. The project is working to publish seven children’s books to teach the many dialects dialects of Gwich’in.

“They’re quite a bit different,” he said. “When we say we’re say we’re walking in my dialect, ‘nichiididik,’ and when they say that in Fort McPherson, they say ‘nahadik.’

“So that’s quite a bit of difference. But whatever it is, we seem to understand each other.”

Norbert is part of a growing community of Elders working to keep Gwich’in culture alive. Listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as “severely endangered”, Gwich’in has less than 600 speakers worldwide — with 260 speakers across Canada and another 300 in Alaska.

Teetł’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Effie Snowshoe is working to preserve her Gwich’in dialect on several fronts. A volunteer with the Mentor Apprenticeship program — which just began accepting applications for a new round of paid language lessons — Snowshoe also frequently teaches language at Chief Julius School and has been involved the Language Revitalization project for five years.

“One of the difficult things about learning Gwich’in is there is a lot of ways of saying one thing,” she said. “The most difficult part is there is never enough time to teach and comprehend the language. Another thing is it’s not being utilized enough at home.

“For me, language is a part of my own lifestyle and identity. I feel it’s so important to continue working, teaching and preserving it for the young people so it will stay alive.”

With the help of Norbert, Snowshoe and others, Andrew Cienski of Andeloo Language Revitalization is working to put together seven books to for families to practice Gwich’in at home.

Funded through the GNWT’s Language Revitalization Fund and five years in the making, the project is now nearing publication. They join a growing library of knowledge of traditional knowledge, including a recently developed Apple app called Kaiik’it, now available for download.

Each book has already undergone extensive reviews, read three times with each Elder involved to ensure the best possible spelling. Some of the books are new stories while others are translated from other Dene languages. All books also come with an audio recording of the story.

Cienski said the next step was to recruit Gwich’in artists to illustrate the storybooks.

“The stories aren’t related but I tried to address the needs of teachers and learners,” he said. “The seven new books span beginner, intermediate and fairly advanced levels of reading and knowledge of Gwich’in. I also tried to cover useful topics. Two of the beginner books cover opposites of up and down, superlatives like big, bigger, biggest and small, smaller and smallest. Another covers numeracy in a very engaging way, learning to count to 10 through a story about fishing.

“One more advanced book is an original that I wrote that explores movement. Gwich’in has some amazing ways of describing movement; going towards, moving away, returning, and so on. The process of working through this text captured some extremely valuable words that have not been documented before.”

Noting some of the Elders involved in the project have been fluent in their language for over 50 years, Cienski said he was hoping to see some of the books available by the end of March.

He added having books in the home for families would make for a great tool for both teachers and learners.

Once families are able to speak Gwich’in among themselves, the real learning begins. Both Norbert and Snowshoe pointed out the best way to learn Gwich’in is to get out on the land and see it.

“Language should be involved with whatever is going on; like hunting or fishing, how to skin the moose or fillet the fish,” he said. “They have to know the names of all the animals and body parts.

“Start with easy words. Start with kids when they’re small. They learn fast. Sometimes they pronounce the words even better than me. They take care of each other and help each other and even remind each other to pay attention.

“It’s not difficult working with young kids. They catch on fast. You give them a word and they never forget it. They have lots of respect for you. When they see you out in the community they call you Didii and grab hold of you and hug you. Kids are great to work with and I like them.”

Email Michelle Wright at if you are an artist interested in working on the project.

Eric Bowling

Your source for all things happening in the Beaufort Delta. Eric jumped at the chance to write for the Inuvik Drum after cutting his teeth in Alberta. He enjoys long walks, loud music and strong coffee....

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