Language Spotlight: Gwich’in

Kenneth Frank and his wife Caroline Tritt-Frank

This summer we teamed up with the Doyon Foundation to release five new language learning courses.

Over the next few weeks, we will spotlight each course to share the culture and stories behind these languages to emphasize the importance of keeping not only these select languages alive but the many thousands of dialects that are at risk of extinction. Our third language spotlight is the Athabaskan language of Gwich’in.

Gwichʼin is spoken by the Gwich’in people, an Indigenous people of Alaska and Canada. The people of the Gwich’in community of Old Crow call themselves the “Van Tat-Gwich’in”, or people who live among the lakes. Few Gwichʼin people actually speak their heritage language, and according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Gwichʼin is now “severely endangered.” In Canada, there are about 260 Gwichʼin speakers out of a total Gwichʼin population of 1,900; in Alaska, 300 out of about 1,100 people speak the language. In 1988, the NWT Official Languages Act named Gwich’in as an official language of the Northwest Territories (in Canada), and in 2014 the Official Languages of Alaska Law declared Gwich’in a recognized language.

The first official Gwich’in writing system was created by Archdeacon Robert McDonald, a Church of England missionary who spent many years working with the Gwich’in people. With their help, Robert translated the entire Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and a book of Takudh Hymns. These materials are still used today by many Elders in the Gwich’in community. The younger generation relies mostly on the newer writing system created by Richard Mueller, a linguist, and Bible translator, in the mid-1970s.

The Gwich’in language is taught regularly at the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow, Yukon Territory. Other projects, in addition to ours, are also underway to document the language and enhance the writing and translation skills of younger Gwich’in speakers. In one project, lead research associate and fluent Gwichʼin Elder Kenneth Frank worked with linguists and young Gwich’in speakers affiliated with the Alaska Native Language Center, at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, to document traditional knowledge of caribou anatomy. We also worked very closely with Kenneth Frank to build our language courses. Kenneth and his wife Caroline Tritt-Frank recorded the conversational Gwich’in phrases used in the online courses.

The Gwich’in course was developed by a team of Alaskan Elders and a linguistics consultant, with the support of Doyon Foundation staff. Allan Hayton, the director of Doyon Foundation, had this to say about working with the Gwich’in team,

“As experienced teachers and curriculum developers, the members brought a lot of experience and knowledge into the design of their course. We would often talk about ‘How would a grandma talk to her grandson? And what would he say back?’ All of the members of this team are speakers, and each is passionate about documenting and passing on their culture and language.” (Source: Doyon Foundation)

The finished Gwich’in course includes 10 units, each with five lessons of content, reviews and unit assessments, as well as nine conversational videos with subtitles in English and Gwich’in and 22 culture and grammar notes.

If you are interested in learning more about Gwich’in, sign up for free  and support future projects like this by donating.