Keepers of the Language: Radio host never spoke Inuvialuktun until she hit the airwaves

She grew up hearing nothing but the language, but it wasn't until Dodie Malegana started working for CBC that she actually started speaking Inuvialuktun.

Dodie Malegana's grandparents spoke to her in the language, she always responded in English

Dodie Malegana hosted the CBC Radio program Tusaavik from Whitehorse between 2015 and 2017. She started hosting again in Edmonton in January 2019. (Ariel Fournier)

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.

Since Dodie Malegana was two weeks old, she's heard Inuvialuktun. She was raised by her grandparents in Aklavik, N.W.T., and they never spoke English.

"I was immersed in the language," she said.

But Malegana, herself, never spoke the language. 

Dodie Malegana, left, interviews Paulatuk resident Annie Thrasher at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik in 2017. (Debbie Gordon Ruben)

She always responded to her family and community members in English, even though she knew what they were saying in Inuvialuktun. 

It wasn't until she started working for CBC, at 38 years old, filling in on the radio show Tusaavik, that she actually started speaking Inuvialuktun. 

"I thought, well ... I'm going to sink or swim here," she said with a laugh. "I got nothing to lose, so I thought I'd try it."

Malegana says the feedback was encouraging. Elders would politely correct her after hearing something that wasn't quite right. Others, she said, thought she was inspiring. 

"I remember one time when I first went on the air ... one lady was telling me that her dad was so happy to hear someone like myself talking on the radio," she said.

"It brought tears to his eyes."

Since those early days, Malegana, now 55, has hosted the show for about three years from Whitehorse and now from Edmonton, where she lives with her daughter and granddaughter.

Teaching the language

Malegana, who used to be a teacher, says she's dedicated to continue teaching as many people as she can — especially during the 54 minutes and 30 seconds she's on the air each weekday. 

At the beginning of every show, she presents three new phrases in Inuvialuktun. She says them three times in the language, and then twice in English.

"I try to do my part," she said. 

Malegana says it's never too late to start learning and speaking an Indigenous language. If she forgets a word in the language these days, she just thinks of her family. 

"I would close my eyes and thinking, 'OK, how would my mom say it?'"

She hopes young people start catching on too, possibly through language immersion programs in schools. 

"My hope is that the language could be strengthened, that more people could make an effort to keep it going," Malegana said. "It would be really awesome."

Written by Alyssa Mosher, based on an interview by Donna Lee