The Gwich’in language seems to roll off the tongue when 23-year-old Arlyn Charlie speaks, but according to Charlie, “Gwiintsàl Dinjii Zhuh jìhtth’àk, ts’at gwiintsàl shiginchik’ zhìt ginikkhìi.” (“I understand and can speak some of the language.”)
When he first started learning Gwich’in three years ago, he read dictionaries and books to get familiar with the words. He started speaking and writing common phrases and words.
Then some elders in his community of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, started to help, correcting and scratching out whatever he got wrong on paper.
“Sometimes you couldn’t even see my own writing,” he said.
This past September, he decided to take a year off before starting a post-secondary degree for teaching and focus completely on learning the language. He’s taken a Gwich’in class and spent time on the land at his jijuu‘s (grandmother’s) fish camp, where he feels he’s learned the most.
“You know, we have the ability to say… ‘Jijuu, I’m going to go make dry fish,'” he said, describing a phrase he’d say in Gwich’in while at the camp.
“And so being out on the land for a number of days allows for all these opportunities to learn and to practice and really provide that basis of hands-on learning.”
Teaching others online
Charlie says ever since he started learning, he’s passed on his knowledge — after all, that’s how he first got interested in learning the language.
Part of his job working for the territory’s department of culture one summer was to listen to and transcribe old interviews with elders.
“That really educated me and got me interested in Gwich’in culture and customs, history.”
Not long after, Charlie started writing a blog and posting photos online about culture and life in Teet’lit Zheh (Fort McPherson).
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Gwindoo niihah k’it gwidhahtsaih k’lee lidii iidinii . Gwindoo- After Niihah k’it gwidhahtsaih – you set up camp Lidii iidinii – we drink tea 😂 . . . #instaphoto #photooftheday #photography #pictureoftheday #landscapephotography #visuals #nature #explore #beautiful #igers #travellingthroughtheworld #languagematters #language #indigenouslanguage #gwichin #speakgwichin
That’s how he teaches others to gijiht’aii (try).
“Because that’s the only way that you can learn,” he said.
Nowadays if he hears elders speaking the language, he can’t always understand word for word what they’re saying, but he can pick up key words and phrases and put the context of the sentence together.
One sentence he knows really well though is: “Gwiint’oo uuzhii ihłii” (“I’m really shy”).
“I don’t really speak [Gwich’in] out in public,” he said.
But he wants to continue encouraging other young people to learn their language. Just start, he says, you’d be surprised what you can do.
“Once you see the progress you make over time you’re going to get really excited and you’re going to really want to learn more,” he said.
Written by Alyssa Mosher based on an interview by Wanda McLeod
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: U.N. Year of Indigenous Languages: When policy isn’t enough, Eye on the Arctic
Finland: Budget cuts threaten international Sámi language cooperation, Yle News
Iceland: Can environmental diplomacy save Arctic languages?, Blog by Takeshi Kaji
Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News
Russia: Sami languages disappear, The Independent Barents Observer
United States: Indigenous leaders at UN meeting push for decade dedicated to language revitalization, CBC News