Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

'We're an oral culture': Saving an endangered language through Gwich'in storytelling

The Gwich'in language — like too many Indigenous languages in Canada — is seriously endangered. Paul Kennedy recently spent some time in Whitehorse, co-hosting a series of radio plays with people from Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, in Old Crow and with the Gwaandak Theatre Company in partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government. Together they are attempting to preserve the language through a series bilingual radio plays.

Fewer than 400 people speak Gwich'in making the language dangerously close to extinction

On March 28, 2019, Gwaandak Theatre brought the (Forward Together): Vuntut Gwitchin Stories readings to Whitehorse. The three night series brought together music and readings from three Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak radio plays. [Left to Right] Brandon Kyikavichik, Dennis Allen, Rendel Kendi, Nic Netro-Hendrie and Leonard Linklater read from Tl'oo Thał - Grass Pants at the Old Fire Hall. (Erik Pinkerton)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode was originally broadcast on June 21, 2019.

The Gwich'in language — like too many Indigenous languages in Canada — is seriously endangered. Fewer than 400 people speak Gwich'in, which puts the language dangerously close to extinction.

Paul Kennedy recently spent some time in Whitehorse, co-hosting a series of radio plays with people from Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, in Old Crow (including two women who have been fluent since childhood) and with the Gwaandak Theatre Company in partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government. Together they are attempting to preserve the language through a series bilingual radio plays.

The entire cast and crew from the Whitehorse radio play readings of Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together): Vuntut Gwitchin Stories. (Erik Pinkerton)

"My greatest goal in life would be to ensure that my Gwich'in language doesn't go extinct," says Brandon Kyikavichik, one of the storytellers and performers of Ndoo Tr'eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward together): Vuntut Gwitchin Stories.

"We're a storytelling culture," says Dennis Allen, another one of the dozen or so performers who breathed life into stories from generations past. "We're an oral culture and our whole existence is based on story."

The on-stage performances took place in March 2019 was more than three years in the making. The Gwaandak Theatre worked in partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government to work with Gwich'in storytellers, elders, scriptwriters, translators, language specialists and community members to shape the radio plays.

As with most Indigenous communities, the residential school system played a major role in suppressing the Gwich'in language.

'We come from a legacy of never, ever quitting or giving up — ever.' 1:41

"That system tried to break us from our culture," says Linda Netro, who is also a performer in the audio plays.

"But we're still a very strong people and we're moving forward now. We're survivors. Because of our elders we are very strong, proud, and wise people."

The short audio plays are designed to be understood by both Gwich'in and English speakers. Standalone audio versions. The plays will be available on the Vuntut Gwitchin and Gwaandak Theatre websites.



A big thank you to everyone who contributed to this episode of Ideas. Click here for a complete list.

The Gwaandak Theatre wishes to acknowledge that the stories were created and shared on the traditional territory of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (Old Crow,Yukon), Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council (Whitehorse), Yukon. We acknowledge the Tagish Kwan as the original people of the land in this southern Yukon region at the headwaters of the Yukon River. To these Nations, their leadership and their citizens hosting us on their lands: Mahsi choo. Shä̀w níthän. Kwä̀nä̀schis. Gunalchîsh. Thank you from the depths of our hearts.

** This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy, with help from Nicola Luksic.

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