Keepers of the Language: Gwich'in host's 'sole mission' is to preserve language

CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.

William Firth was only a teenager when his grandmother told him that he would never have a wife or family — that wasn't his path.

Even at four years old he says he knew himself that he had a purpose in life, and that was to work with his language: Gwich'in.

Firth, 57, is the host of CBC North's Gwich'in radio program Nantaii, which broadcasts out of his home in Fort McPherson, N.W.T. He's worked on and off for the public broadcaster since 1985, also doing stints in community radio, and always focusing on preserving and sharing his language.

Firth grew up in Fort McPherson, a small community on the banks of the Peel River, about 120 kilometres south of Inuvik. He says as far back as the 1970s, elders knew the language was "dwindling."

"At that time, I made it my sole mission," he said.

Samantha Stuart Photography

While other children were playing outside and with friends, Firth was visiting and speaking with elders. It wasn't until his grandmother sat him down at 16 years old though, that he learned the true extent of what his mission would entail.

She told him that his path was to work with the language. When he asked about having a family, she said that was not going to happen.

"She said that 'this is what we see, and this is what you're going to be doing.'

"I was just starting out my life and I was thinking I'd be like everybody else around me — that I would end up having a family," Firth said.

"I was thrown for a loop."

He questioned his mother, who said that what his grandmother said normally came true — and he knew himself — you don't question elders.

Be that as it may, in the following years, Firth did try to break out on his own. He said any time he veered toward something other than his language, something dragged him back.

"That was the strange thing about it. Like whenever I tried to do like everybody else, and try to have a family, things just didn't work out," he said.

Firth kept coming back to the same conclusion.

"The language is dwindling and I have to do something about it. We have to do something about it. That's all that came back to my mind every time I try to step into a different area.

"So I just quit fighting ... that's what I had to do."

'It's starting to come back'

Ever since, Firth has devoted his life to preserving Gwich'in.

Working at CBC in the 1980s, he says what bothered him most was that there were no Gwich'in materials in writing, like dictionaries, stories or nursery rhymes. He started work to develop those resources to use in schools and beyond.

Firth thinks the language hit rock bottom, but now it's turning around, which took decades.

"We got quite a bit of it done," he said. "It's starting to come back. It's a slow process."

Firth is using his radio show to encourage elders to continue telling their stories, so their vocabulary is not lost.

"Those were people that lived out on the land and ... language changes over time. And this is what we're seeing is that a lot of those old terms are no longer used today, and that is just like maybe 50 years ago."

Initiatives on social media are also driving the younger generation to feel empowered to speak Gwich'in, which Firth calls "the biggest step." He also uses his show to reach them.

"I try to encourage them as much as I can when I'm on air to learn the language as much as possible," he said.

"That's just a plus for me, and I'm glad that this program that I'm doing is helping me encourage more people. That's what it's all about."