Archivists poring over 75,000 hours of traditional stories collected by CBC

Seventeen people are archiving 75,000 hours of recorded stories, all collected over six decades by the CBC in Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, Tlicho, North Slavey, South Slavey, Denesuline Yatie, Cree and Inuktitut.

Recorded stories, in 8 Indigenous languages, were collected over more than 6 decades

Susie Zettler, originally from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, has been with CBC's Indigenous language archives project for two years, listening to and archiving stories in Inuktitut. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

About 65 years ago, Joe Kiloonik was hunting caribou near Taloyoak, Nunavut, when he came across something unexpected: dozens of letters scattered in the snow. 

Kiloonik found a couple letters addressed to Ernie Lyall, a radio broadcaster in town. When he contacted Lyall, he found out these letters had been dropped from an airplane 24 years earlier. They were lost, and now found.

That's just one of the thousands of stories coming to light via CBC's Indigenous languages archives project. Seventeen people in Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Whitehorse, Montreal and Toronto are working on archiving 75,000 hours worth of recorded stories collected over six decades in eight Indigenous languages: Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, Tlicho, North Slavey, South Slavey, Denesuline, Cree and Inuktitut.

This is probably our history.- Lucy Ann Yakelaya, Indigenous languages archivist 
The late Ernie Lyall, a Nunavut broadcaster, used to tell people when the mail dropped from the Hercules aircraft each month. This is just one of the stories captured in CBC's Indigenous languages archives project. (Submitted by Janet Brewster)

"It's like listening to them speak in their living room even though they've been dead for many years," said Susie Zettler about listening to people on the recordings.

Zettler, originally from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, has been working with the archiving project in the Inuktitut language for two years.

"I feel like they're just there," she said.

The stories span from the 1950s to 2017. Zettler says they not only help her and others connect with people from the past, but they also teach them about what life was like: for example, dropping letters in northern communities via airplane was a monthly occurrence. 

"We don't have history books like they do down south," said Lucy Ann Yakelaya. She's originally from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., and works on the archive project in North Slavey.

"This is probably our history."

Separating themselves from tragedies

That history also includes stories of vulnerability, injustice and sadness. Zettler says when she first started listening to the stories, it was hard not to feel the same emotions that she heard in people's voices.

"We had to ask someone over to show us how to take care of ourselves," she said.

"They talk about long time ago when the children were taken away to [residential] school too, that was a hard part for the parents," said Mary Ann Williams, originally from Deline, N.W.T., who works for the archive project in North Slavey. "And the parents getting taken away for [tuberculosis]."

Lucy Ann, who works in North Slavey for the Indigenous archiving project, says she listens to about 10 stories a day. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

Zettler says these days, it's easier to remove themselves from the stories and think more about the service this project will provide.

"It's really amazing," she said. "When you hear [a story], you picture all their family."

"Children that never met their grandparents, they can hear what their life was like and how they lived," Williams said.

Plan to make stories public

Betty Harnum, linguist and project lead, has lived in the North for 45 years. She loves watching the archivists react to some of the stories they hear. Sometimes, she says, she catches them singing along to an old tune that's recorded.

She says the best thing about this project though, is where it comes from.

Some of the people who have worked on CBC's Indigenous languages archives project in Yellowknife. From left to right: Susie Zettler, Betty Harnum, Erica Maher, Mary Malgokak, Jimmy Hope, Harriet Paul, Sarah Leonardis, Mary Ann Williams, Lucy Ann Yakelaya, Bertha Catholique and Celine Football. (Submitted by Susie Zettler)

"This is northern history from an Indigenous perspective, oral history of people on the frontline," she said.

The archivists still have thousands of records to go through in the next three years.

Once they're finished, the hope is to make the stories available online for anyone who wants to hear.

Harnum is also working with libraries and organizations around the territory to see if they'll be able to set up computer stations where people could grab a pair of headphones and listen to a frontline history lesson.

CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.


  • It was brought to our attention by a reader that the use of the word "legends" to describe these stories may be an insufficient or insensitive choice of language. While the word was used by the subjects of the story to describe their work, we've decided to update the caption to remove that word and use the more general term, "stories," that more accurately reflects how they are described in Indigenous languages.
    Jun 24, 2019 11:29 AM CT


Alyssa Mosher

Journalist, CBC North

Alyssa Mosher is a journalist for CBC North based in Yellowknife. She's worked in the newsroom for more than seven years as a reporter, producer, web writer, and radio and television host. She majored in journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, where she also worked with the CBC New Brunswick team. To get in touch with Alyssa, email