'I think about it 24-7': CBC North host's mission to bring Gwich'in language to youth

From a young age, William Firth knew he would dedicate his life to learning, regenerating, and passing on Gwich’in, a language he learned from elders in the Northwest Territories. Every weekday, he reaches the several hundred speakers of the language through his all-Gwich’in CBC Radio show.
Firth, 57, is the host of CBC North's Gwich'in radio program Nantaii, which broadcasts out of Inuvik. (Samantha Stuart Photography)

When CBC Radio host William Firth was a kid growing up in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., the adults in his community were told they should focus on teaching their children English rather than Gwich'in.

"I was kind of stumped because sometimes I could hear their language, but I could not understand," Firth told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Around the age of four, Firth made a decision that would impact the rest of his life.

"I recall making up my mind and saying, 'Oh no, I am not going to let this beat me. I am going to learn that [language] and I'm going to thrive and make it my life's job to pass it on,'" Firth said.

"As soon as the elders started to see that I was interested, they enveloped me and started to help me all along my journey."

Firth now hosts the radio program Nantaii, which is broadcast entirely in Gwich'in.

His goal is not just to incorporate these centuries-old words into his everyday vocabulary, but to regenerate it for young people. 

Firth admits it can be an "uphill battle." There are certain concepts in English that just can't be translated into Gwich'in.

"We don't have a word for time, in the sense of one hour, one minute," Firth said

"It's kind of difficult for me to say, 'I'm going to be here with you for an hour or maybe 55 minutes' because we don't have a term for that. The only thing I can say is, 'We're going to be here for a certain amount of time (IhLeh gwizrih zhat t'ihiidich'yaa).' Or, I usually say, 'For a length of time, but not very long (Srii t'anhshuk).'"

Firth says Gwich'in was developed around his people's history as nomads who lived off the land. As a result, they recognize six seasons — the two additions being spring proper and fall proper — and two ways of expressing September.

The six seasons:

  • Khaii is winter
  • Daii is early spring
  • Sreendit is spring proper
  • Shin is summer
  • Nagwidiink'yuu is early fall
  • Khaiints'an' is fall proper

"One of the things that I remember hearing in September was, 'This is the moon or the month when the birds fly away (Vananh Ne'nidijaa)' and that's the migration time," said Firth.

"Another term that comes in there as well is, 'It's when the moose lose the velvet on their horns (Vananh Di'iilii).' Those two are the terms for September."

Firth says that learning and regenerating Gwich'in is his calling.

"We have this concept in our culture where we believe that someone has been reborn again. We call that Nadlii in our language," Firth explained.

"That's what I was told about myself — that I was sent back to more or less stand up for the Gwich'in language and my job will be to more or less help it come back to the young people."


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