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’We can take back our language,’ says Gwich’in Elder Sarah Jerome

For Fort McPherson Elder Sarah Jerome, a fluent Gwich’in language speaker, it’s one thing to listen but another to be actually heard.
Sarah Jerome, a Gwich’in Elder from Fort McPherson, has been a longtime advocate of the Gwich’in language and culture. Photo courtesy of Sarah Jerome

For Fort McPherson Elder Sarah Jerome, a fluent Gwich’in language speaker, it’s one thing to listen but another to be actually heard.

This is the challenge Jerome has encountered at times during her lifelong quest to preserve the language of her ancestors and to ensure it is taught in the traditional Gwich’in way.

“I think we need to go through our own self-government through our Aboriginal organizations, then make our own decisions on what is best for us instead of the government always thinking that they are making the best decisions for us,” Jerome said.

“We are telling them, ‘Why don’t you do this according to our way?’ or ‘Let’s do it our way, you have been trying your way for so many years. We know what is best for us.’

Words and ways

Jerome, a former languages commissioner for the NWT, said it matters greatly how Gwich’in is taught because it’s an all-encompassing language — not one that can be solely taught or learned in a classroom.

“All through my life, I knew the importance of the language because the language is the base of our Gwich’in way of life. And incorporated into that we would have the culture and the traditional way,” Jerome said. “We have the beliefs and the value systems all in that language. So, when we are teaching the language in the school system, it is not the natural environment for teaching the language.”

Jerome said the difference in teaching the language on the land in the presence of Elders, however, is that learning incorporates the land base, the beliefs, the value systems, the traditional knowledge and the culture of the Gwich’in people.

“All are incorporated into the grassroots of the language. And this is part of teaching. It is absent today from teaching our language,” she said.

The Gwich’in way of teaching their language should be done while participating in on-the-land immersion camps because many of the language teachers are not fluent, she added.

“They are struggling trying to learn the language while they are trying to teach the language to our children. So therefore, we need to set up immersion camps so that we immerse them in the language on the land surrounded by Elders who still speak the language,” she said.

After partaking in such immersion camps, by hiring Elders to work alongside teachers in the classroom, Jerome said a transformation would then begin in not only learning but in truly understanding the language.

“A lot of times, what happened is that it was all to do with the weather, the colours, the numbers — it was teaching by isolating topics. It wasn’t taught through sentences, so therefore we need to change that as Elders in the community.”

Taking back their essence

What was taken away from the Gwich’in people in residential school must be rebuilt and restored as much as possible while the Elders are still alive to teach it, according to Jerome.

“It is really a transition that we have gone through, from land-based living and speaking the language, into going into the residential school system, and how we lost so much of the language — the value of it, the meaning of it. Now we are trying to reteach that language.”

Anyone who speaks Gwich’in should ensure that future generations are able to communicate in their ancestral language, Jerome advised.

She estimates that only about 200 people in the NWT speak Gwich’in, with fewer than 100 of them making the Beaufort Delta region their home.

“For those of us who still speak the language, I think we need to continue to speak the language, even though our children or our grandchildren don’t understand. This is what I am now doing with my grandchildren, I talk to them. Eventually they understand what I am saying.”

One of the more common phrases Jerome said she uses when speaking to her grandchildren is, “Shi’ tshuu tyah gweejii?” which translates into English as, “Where is my cup?”

“I keep saying that and eventually they realize what I am saying.”

Jerome encourages speaking the language as often as possible in day-to-day life, although she knows that for some Elders it is a difficult or traumatic thing to do because they were punished for speaking their language in residential school.

Being on the land would help heal those traumas as well, she said.

“I feel it is very important, and teaching our children about their heritage, their genealogy and to try to bring back the teachings of the Elders — of respect for land, people, places, everything around us, and that also includes hunting, fishing and trapping,” she said.

“We need to get back out there and work with them and walk them through what they had experienced and to teach them that we can take back our voices, we can take back our power and we can take back our language.”