Hear 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' sung in Hän

There aren't many people in Yukon who speak Hän anymore, but they've been helping translate some beloved Christmas carols into their Indigenous language.

'I think we have only two fluent speakers in our community now,' says Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Elder

Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in elder Angie Joseph-Rear says she enjoys helping to translate Christmas carols into the Hän language because some of her most cherished childhood memories are of Christmas. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

It's not easy to translate anything into the Hän language these days. Just ask Angie Joseph-Rear, an elder from the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon. 

"Oh Lordy, I think we have only two fluent speakers in our community now," she said.

But those fluent speakers, along with some eager Hän learners, have been busy for years translating some beloved Christmas carols into Hän — including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, Angels From the Realms of Glory.

Joseph-Rear was recently recorded singing the latest translation — O Come, All Ye Faithful — and the video was posted online.

"We're gonna be singing tomorrow at family service in [the] Anglican Church at seven, and it's difficult for the group to get together to practice. So that's the reason why they put it [online]," she said on Monday.  

Joseph-Rear said the idea of translating carols was sparked almost 30 years ago, after an Indigenous language conference in Whitehorse. She credits Elders Percy Henry and the late Archie Roberts and Edith Joseph for helping make it happen.    

"Every time I sing these carols, I think about them," Joseph-Rear said.

Joseph-Rear calls herself a Hän learner, and for the carol project, a transcriber. She said the project relies on the skills and knowledge of people like Henry — one of those two remaining fluent speakers (the other is Edward Roberts, Archie's brother). 

"[Henry] doesn't transfer word-for-word. He actually transfers into the meaning of that verse ... like, it may be four or five verses long and he said this one, in two verses, he said, it tells you all about what the hymn is about," Joseph-Rear said.

"Percy's 92, and I honour him for being there for us, still."

Christmas at Moosehide

Joseph-Rear says she enjoys working on the carol translations because Christmas means a lot to her. Some of her most cherished childhood memories are of family get-togethers on the holidays. 

"Well, I am one of the lucky ones to have had a little touch of life at Moosehide," she said, referring to the former Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in village site where she grew up, downriver from Dawson City.

"People that moved to town used to come every Christmas, every day if they could walk, it doesn't matter the weather, they'd come down and we'd celebrate ... we'd have dances, and food, and we ate together," she recalled.

An undated photo of Moosehide, the former Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in village downriver from Dawson City. (Yukon Archives/Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Heritage)

By the late '50s, things were changing — Moosehide was getting quieter as people moved to Dawson City.

"There were few of us left," Joseph-Rear said.

Eventually, her family started making the trek into town to join their aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents for Christmas dinner.

"I always remember that, because we were all piled into a toboggan and with dog team. We'd come up, and when we go home it's late into the evening, moon's out," she recalled.

"You know, I think about that. How many of us now have experienced life such as that?"

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Leonard Linklater