'We're an oral culture': Saving an endangered language through Gwich'in storytelling
Fewer than 400 people speak Gwich'in making the language dangerously close to extinction
** 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.
"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.
"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."
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.