On-the-land program strengthening Gwich'in language in Fort McPherson

·2 min read
Gwich'in language immersion camp at Midway Lake. The Tetlit Gwich'in Council is putting on the camp. (William Firth/CBC - image credit)
Gwich'in language immersion camp at Midway Lake. The Tetlit Gwich'in Council is putting on the camp. (William Firth/CBC - image credit)

Anita Koe started to organize an immersive language program for people living in Fort McPherson after her son came home speaking Gwich'in.

"I didn't even understand him," she told CBC's Northwind on Wednesday. "He tried asking me something in Gwich'in and I didn't know how to understand."

It was a pivotal moment.

Koe, Fort McPherson's community co-ordinator, said she spent a lot of time thinking about how the language is being taught at schools and not at home. Then, she reached out to Mary Effie Snowshoe about starting an on-the-land language program to teach and reconnect people with the language.

"She just jumped on board," said Koe, of Snowshoe's response.

Lessons steeped in culture

The two-week program is funded by the Tetlit Gwich'in Tribal Council, and is taking place at Midway Lake near Fort McPherson until Monday.

A group of participants, said Koe, have been working their way through a number of units tied to Indigenous culture, including a family unit, a kitchen unit and a caribou unit.

"We learned the different parts of the caribou in our Gwich'in language … we had demonstrations of how to cut up caribou, how to make nilii gaii, which is dry meat," she said. "We also did the trapping unit, which is a demonstration of how to set the trap and how to skin a lynx."

The young boys participating were especially interested in that part of the program, she said.

Anita Koe said it's important for the camp to take place on the land, because it helps people stayed focused and engaged. 'In a community, it would be too many distractions,' she said.
Anita Koe said it's important for the camp to take place on the land, because it helps people stayed focused and engaged. 'In a community, it would be too many distractions,' she said. (William Firth/CBC)

'The language is still here'

The program has drawn people from all ages and language skill sets. Koe said one participant is three-years-old and the oldest is Snowshoe, 82, who is the instructor.

"We have participants who are speaking in complete sentences now, and even reading in sentences," said Koe.

Koe herself, who learned a bit of Gwich'in while she was in school, is surprised by the way it's coming back.

"I remember this hymn, I remember this verse, and we are just amazed how the language is still there, in our minds," she said. "As one of the administrators who oversees the program, it's really a success."

LISTEN| Anita Koe descirbes the on-the-land language immersion on CBC's Northwind: