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FIRST WORDS: Linda McDonald speaks Kaska

Today, there are seven fluent speakers of the Kaska dialect that Linda McDonald speaks. She doesn’t consider herself one of the seven, because she still struggles to put some sentences together.
Linda McDonald teaches the Kaska language at secondary school in Watson Lake, Yukon. (Leslie Main Johnson)

First Words is a podcast focused on Indigenous languages, each episode we welcome a new guest into the hosting chair to teach us a few words in their language. ​


Today, there are seven fluent speakers of the Kaska dialect that Linda McDonald speaks. She doesn’t consider herself one of the seven, because she still struggles to put some sentences together. 12:54

Growing up, Linda McDonald only spoke Kaska until she was about three, when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was sent to Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton from her home in Watson Lake, Yukon to recover.

There, she started to pick up English — and lose her Indigenous language.

Two years later, McDonald was finally healthy enough to return home. She was well ahead of her older siblings in learning English after speaking it almost exclusively while in Edmonton.

When McDonald was six, she remembers her mother speaking Kaska to her in a store. Feeling embarrassed, McDonald asked her mother to stop.

She still remembers the look on her mother's face. 

"My mom just looked very sad," McDonald said. "But that was the way society was — society led us to believe that our language wasn't important."

McDonald managed to avoid attending residential school in Watson Lake, Yukon. Her dad worked at the airport, and his kids attended the airport school even though they were status Indians.

They spoke no Kaska at school, McDonald said, though they did speak it in the home. McDonald became what's known as a silent speaker — she understood Kaska, but quickly lost her ability to speak it fluently. 

But as McDonald started to get older, she realized what a special gift she had, knowing her Indigenous language. After finishing her teaching degree, she applied to be the Kaska teacher at the school in Watson Lake, and has been in the job for more than 20 years.

Today, there are seven fluent speakers of the Kaska dialect that McDonald speaks. She doesn't consider herself one of the seven, because she still struggles to put some sentences together.

Society led us to believe that our language wasn't important.- Linda McDonald

McDonald said it's the hardest job she's ever had, teaching a language she's not comfortably fluent in. It's why she didn't teach her son, either — she wasn't confident enough to pass that knowledge on.

"People don't realize how badly one can be affected by the influences of society," she said. "I grew up thinking that we shouldn't speak Kaska because … I grew up thinking that English was the better language."

But despite the difficulties of the language, McDonald isn't giving up learning or teaching the Kaska language.

"I will forever be working on the Kaska language to the day I die. I will be doing things to teach people or to promote or assist anybody who wants to learn, because that's who we are," she said.

 "The fact that Kaska is still spoken makes me feel so good that they didn't win. 

"The language is still with us."

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