British Columbia

One of the last fluent Dakelh speakers dies, taking 'a whole dictionary with her'

Just shy of 98 years old, Mary Gouchie took any opportunity she could to teach a new word in the Lheidli dialect of Dakelh to anyone who was willing to learn.

Lheidli T'enneh elder Mary Gouchie died last week, leaving a challenge to the preservation of her language

Mary Gouchie, 97, died in Prince George last Friday. (Philomena Hughes)

The death of one of the last fluent speakers of a northern B.C. First Nation dialect will leave a hole in efforts to preserve the language, but her legacy continues in Prince George schools.

Lheidli T'enneh elder Mary Gouchie died Friday in Prince George at the age of 97. She was one of the last people who spoke the Lheidli dialect of Dakelh as a first language.

"She was a keeper of the language and she would do everything that she could to help preserve that language," said her granddaughter Kym Gouchie, a musician who worked with her grandmother to translate her lyrics into Dakelh. 

"I'll never be a fluent speaker," she said. "But what I can do is take words and phrases and include them in my songs."

Kym Gouchie was very close to her grandmother Mary Gouchie and had asked her to translate song lyrics into the Lheidli dialect of Dakelh. (Kym Gouchie)

Dakelh, also known as Carrier, is the language traditionally spoken by First Nations people living in northern central B.C. It has many dialects, including the Lheidli dialect spoken in the Prince George area. 

Kym Gouchie says her grandmother's death is a huge cultural loss.

"She sadly is taking a whole dictionary with her because our language has been lost through contact and through smallpox epidemic," she said.

"The language and the culture goes with that."

College program teaches Dakelh

Darlene McIntosh a fellow Lheidli T'enneh elder and cultural advisor at the College of New Caledonia's Aboriginal Resource Centre, says a new Dakelh language program just started this semester at CNC. 

She says it's not well attended, but believes that will change.

"With anything that starts, it's got hiccups, but I think eventually it'll take hold," she said.

In preparation for the eulogy on Saturday, Lheidli T'enneh elder Darlene McIntosh reads a letter written by Mary Gouchie. (Audrey McKinnon/CBC News)

McIntosh has her sights on elementary and high schools in Prince George, where remaining language-keepers are spending time introducing kids to Dakelh language and culture. 

She says she hopes the children's interest in the language will grow as they do, so that by the time they reach college and university, language programs like the one that just started will get more registrants.

"With our culture, language is the base of who we are, and so we really need to preserve it the best way we can," McIntosh said.

'She really did teach me a lot'

McIntosh will give Gouchie's eulogy at her memorial this Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 2 p.m.

Like many others, McIntosh remembers Gouchie for the profound impression she could leave on a room. 

"She was just this tiny little woman that just radiated every time she came into any group situation," McIntosh said. "I would consider her a mentor to myself because she really did teach me a lot."

Flags at Prince George city hall have been flying at half-mast in Gouchie's honour.

Flags fly at half-mast at Prince George city hall in honour of Lheidli T'enneh elder Mary Gouchie. (City of Prince George)

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Audrey McKinnon is a former host and reporter at CBC Radio. She currently lives in Prince George, B.C. where she works as a writer and artist.