Gwich'in language centre's move to Inuvik includes new digital archive centre

The Gwich’in Tribal Council language centre's new digital archive project will create a database for Gwich'in to access and learn the language and culture.

Gwich’in Tribal Council language revitalization plan includes digitizing 30 years of archives

The Gwich'in Tribal Council has moved its language centre to Inuvik after 30 years in Fort McPherson. (David Thurton/CBC)

The Gwich'in Tribal Council is digitizing all of its archived material collected over the past 30 years.

The digital archive centre — based out of the Gwich'in language centre — will digitize photos, language resources, oral histories and books, then put it all into a catalogued database.

The council recognized there was a need to make Gwich'in more accessible to everyone, according to chief operating officer Carolyn Lennie.

What we have here is, I believe, roughly 25 years of research that has been going on in Fort McPherson- Andrew Cienski

She said the main goals of the language centre are "to have that information accessible to Gwich'in, whether they're in the communities or outside, that they'd be able to utilize that information and to ensure that we're promoting and carrying on our Gwich'in language."

The Gwich'in language centre offers resources and programs for learning Gwich'in. It also promotes the Gwich'in language within Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic, Aklavik and Inuvik. Each of these communities has a language co-ordinator.

The language centre was previously located in Fort McPherson but moved to Inuvik after funding that kept the centre running in the former community was cut by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, according to the council. 

"It's out of our control," said Lennie.

The department didn't respond to requests for comment on the funding.  

Now, the language centre in Inuvik is the office of Andrew Cienski, the Gwich'in Tribal Council's language revitalization specialist.

"It's open to the community on a drop-in basis," he said. "They can phone me, they can email me. If I have something I can share with them, I can make it available. If they have questions I can help with that." 

Creating an online public library

Andrew Cienski will head the Gwich'in digital archiving project. (Submitted by Andrew Cienski)

Digitizing the language centre's archives is a long-term project, according to Cienski.

He's worked on similar projects with First Nations in British Columbia for more than a decade, but said this is a "very large-scale" project. 

"What we have here is, I believe, roughly 25 years of research that has been going on in Fort McPherson," he said. 

Cienski said that includes several versions of a dictionary, documents related to grammar, recorded oral histories, elder biographies, photographs and videos.

The plan is to create an online public library for anyone to use with ease.

"So like if you go to a library and you want to look up, 'Oh I need a book on how to build a canoe' you type in 'canoe,'" said Cienski.

Eventually, the council will hire summer students and more people to help with the digitization once things get going. 

"My database right now is just an Excel spreadsheet," said Cienski.

The software they'll be using for cataloguing the database is in the final stages of being customized for the project's needs.

In the meantime, Cienski said "getting games and stories into the hands of teachers as soon as possible is a priority."

That includes conversation scripts, flash cards and beginner storybooks no longer in publication.