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New generation of Yukon First Nations language speakers honoured alongside elders

June 18, 2021
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By Christine Lyons

In partnership with the Yukon Native Language Centre (YNLC)  and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), Simon Fraser University’s Indigenous Languages Program (INLP) honoured 8 graduates of the language proficiency certificate and 13 fluent speakers of Gwich'in, Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Lingít, and Upper Tanana, in a recognition ceremony on the territory of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. 

In late May, and with COVID-19 protocols in place, the YNLC hosted a graduation and honour ceremony in-person for all 8 grads and 12 of the fluent speakers at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. It was an emotional and poignant ceremony. 

INLP Director and linguistics professor, Marianne Ignace and Council of Yukon First Nations’ Grand Chief Peter Johnston both congratulated the grads for their accomplishments and—as Ignace put it—for taking the “courageous and utterly important step to learn or even re-learn and reclaim your languages.” 

Ignace said she was “deeply honoured” to spend three and half years working with many of the elders in attendance: “We are so pleased to honour 13 fluent speakers and elders who have given their time and energies to help the next generation learn and reclaim your languages and to become the torch-bearers into the future of your beautiful languages.”

Addressing the grads, Grand Chief Johnston said: 

“In a time when most of our Yukon First Nations languages are in a critical state, this unique program is a key part of our vision to support the development of fluent Yukon First Nations language speakers.” 
 
The Grand Chief expressed hope in his concluding remarks, encouraging grads "to embark on their own language learning journey. It will be through your efforts as leaders in our communities that we realize a new tomorrow for our children and families where knowledge of one’s traditional language is common and our languages flourish once again.”

“Dághą shäw níthän to äshäw that spoke only dän kʼè,” says Luke Campbell, a graduate and proficient speaker of Southern Tutchone. “Without [the teachers] dedication and the staff’s dedication I would not have increased my fluency of dän kʼè and finished the program.”

Skáyda.û, Tina Jules, Director of the Yukon Native Language Centre respectfully acknowledged the work of fluent speakers that have passed on and passionately says: 

“What we have done here is precedent setting. These certificates honour our Elders’ fluency and their distinguished knowledge of their history and culture. It is our leaders, fluent speakers, language instructors, language staffs and families, that have made this such a wonderful day of happiness and pride for our graduates. Yak’éi aatlein yageeyí. It is a very great day. Gunałchéesh ldakát yeewhan. Gratitude to everyone.”

Indeed, with the programs accepting an influx of new students, the partnership and collective work between SFU, CYFN and YNLC will continue to have a powerfully positive impact on revitalizing and strengthening Yukon First Nation languages. And it is a model for partnerships between First Nations and Universities, working together to create a new generation of fluent speakers, carrying the language to future generations. 

The students who have graduated with the certificate have completed the first step in a set of laddered credentials the SFU Indigenous Languages Program has developed. Following the Certificate, students will have the opportunity to complete the intermediate-advanced Diploma in Indigenous language proficiency, and both the Certificate and Diploma also ladder into SFU's new BA degree with a minor in Indigenous languages. SFU looks forward to working with CYFN and YNLC to partner in offering these credentials to students in the Yukon.

Photo credit: Yukon Native Language Centre. Top row (L-R): Yukon First Nations’ Grand Chief Peter Johnston, Ta’ mòh Patrick Johnny, Gu’khawke’t Eileen Fields and Guest, Luke Campbell, Shayawdustee Pricilla Dawson, Lëgit Georgette McLeod, Hätrʼunohtän Trʼày Allison Anderson, Paul Caesar-Jules, Gadzûsdà Tahyah Van Bibber, Nancy Sterriah, YNLC Director Tina Jules, Sarah Si Irene Johnny. Bottom row: Percy Henry, Anyałahash Sam Johnston, Edarume’ Alyce Joe, Änji átà Louie Smith, Da-maa Lizzie Hall, Nakhela Hazel Bunbury

Full list of grads and fluent speakers:

Fluent Speakers:

Sarah Si, Irene Johnny, Hän

Percy Henry, Hän

Gushàka, Grace Margaret Johnson, Northern Tutchone

Gah, Jocelyn Wolftail, Kaska

Khut'äla, Audrey Brown, Southern Tutchone

Nakhela, Hazel Bunbury, Southern Tutchone

Kaakligéi, Norman James, Lingít

Änji átà, Louie Smith, Northern Tutchone

Nancy Sterriah, Kaska

Da-maa, Lizzie Hall, Northern Tutchone

Anyalahash, Sam Johnston, Lingít

Marion Schafer, Gwich'in

Ta'mòh, Patrick Johnny, Upper Tanana

Grads:

Hätrʼunohtän trʼày, Allison Anderson (Hän)

Lëjit, Georgette McCleod, Hän

Paul Caesar – Jules, Kaska

Gu'khawke't, Eileen Fields, Northern Tutchone

Luke Campbell, Southern Tutchone

Edarume'. Alyce Joe, Northern Tutchone

Gadzûsdà, Tahyah Van Bibber, Lingít

Shayawdustee, Pricilla Dawson, Southern Tutchone

To watch the full ceremony, hear the Elders speak and learn more about these graduates and fluent speakers, visit the YNLC website and read the 2021 Recognition Ceremony Program here.