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Keeper of the flame

John Barker
Northern News Services

Fort McPherson (Sep 16/02) - How do you not only preserve, but encourage and make vital, the use of an indigenous language in a no-longer-isolated North, where the culture is saturated in English from dawn to dusk, from birth to death?

It's the sort of question William George of Fort McPherson, one of the North's leading Gwich'in interpreters and teachers, has wrestled with for most of his life.

His full name is William George Firth, "but everyone calls me William George," he says.

Oral language important first step

"If you can get kids to learn oral Gwich'in, that's the first step," says George. "Sometimes too much emphasis is put on written language. Gwich'in is originally an oral language."

George has been involved on and off with the Gwich'in Teaching and Learning Centre in Fort McPherson since 1982 -- a year after it was founded. The centre operates under the auspices of the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute in nearby Tsiigehtchic. The combined staff of the two organizations is about 10 employees, George says.

The Gwich'in Athapaskan language has also been known as Loucheux, Kutchin and Tukudh. It is spoken in the northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, the northern Yukon and northeast Alaska.

There are 53 consonants and five vowels in Gwich'in, George says. And like the English language, he adds, Gwich'in has borrowed here and there, especially from neighbours in close geographic proximity. There are also 12 Gwich'in dialects and the language spoken in Fort McPherson is slightly different than that spoken in Tsiigehtchic, he says.

"There are some words of French origin in Gwich'in because of the influence of the missionaries," says George, "but also Gwich'in has been influenced in particular by North Slavey to the south and Han," spoken by the Han Hwach'in ( people who live along the Yukon River) of Dawson City in the Yukon and in Eagle, Alaska. "There are also a few Inuvialuit words."

Indeed, it wasn't until the 1860s that Anglican missionary Archdeacon Robert McDonald developed the traditional Gwich'in -- or McDonald -- orthography. He called the people and their language Tukudh or Takudh. With the help of the Gwich'in, McDonald translated the entire Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and a hymnal. Some older Gwich'in, George says, still read and write the McDonald alphabet.

Today, that has been adapted to what is known as "modern" written Gwich'in.

"Mainly, some of the consonants have been changed, but also some of the spelling using vowels," says George. Man is spelled "tinjih" in the McDonald orthography, while it's spelled "dinjii" in modern Gwich'in orthography. The traditional spelling of now is "choog," while it's "juk" in the modern spelling. Grass is "ttlo" in traditional spelling and "tl'oo" in modern Gwich'in.

George, 40, grew up with Gwich'in parents in Fort McPherson. While his mother still spoke some Gwich'in, his parents had become largely Anglicized by the early 1960s, he says, so he grew up speaking and writing English first, before learning to speak and write in traditional then modern Gwich'in.

He says he was about 25 years old before he felt completely fluent in oral and both written forms of Gwich'in.

"The fluency level in Gwich'in dropped rapidly in the early 1960s," says George. "The schools were all teaching in English and many parents here didn't see any relevance to it and wondered why someone would want to learn it. It (Gwich'in) was kind of foreign to parents."

But George says there was one major influence in his life that led him on the language path he's been on since he was six or seven years old.

"My (maternal) grandmother, Annie G. Roberts, always spoke Gwich'in when she came to our place. She lived on the land near here in a tent. When she came to see us, she spoke Gwich'in. She died in 1987 at the age of 106."

As well, there was always a small core of elders in Fort McPherson throughout the 1960s and 1970s, George says, keeping the Gwich'in language alive.

George attended Samuel Hearne secondary school in Inuvik. After spending his early 20s working as an employment officer in Fort McPherson, he studied radio in Yellowknife with the Native Communications Society and worked as a translator and interpreter for CBC Radio North in both Yellowknife and the Inuvik bureau.

He also worked as a Gwich'in interpreter at the legislative assembly in Yellowknife for eight years.

Elders influence key

George says more than 30 years after he had his own consciousness raised by his grandmother and other elders in Fort McPherson about the importance of his Gwich'in language heritage, it's still an uphill struggle to preserve and promote his native tongue.

"There are still a few (young) people who can use Gwich'in to create a sentence," he says, but not many. Funding for Gwich'in language training comes down from the federal government through the GNWT's Department of Education, Culture and Employment on a per capita basis, George says, which is in many ways inadequate. "There are less than 800 people in Fort McPherson. Funding should be addressed based on need, not numbers."

But George remains undaunted, continuing his life-long commitment to being a peaceful warrior at the forefront of Gwich'in language and culture. In July, he was in Old Crow in the Yukon for the eighth biennial Gwich'in Gathering, where he did simultaneous translation and interpretation at the Gwich'in Tribal Council meeting.

It's a pattern of community service with a long history for George.

And not just strictly in terms of language. George has remained interested and committed to a broad range of Gwich'in cultural issues. In the mid-1980s, he was one of the first people to help Inuvik's Ruby Ann McLeod get set up to teach a youth group -- which would become known as the East Three Reelers -- old-time dances, which in turn has led to them travelling to community jamborees and music festivals.

"We would always go to my fish camp in the summer," says McLeod.

"When I go to my camp, I take my tapes and listen to music. We had this drum dance tape from Fort Good Hope, so we put that on, and there we were starting to dance on the beach with these kids, boys and girls. Then I put fiddling music on and there we started dancing to that. When I came back to town, I kept thinking about it.

"I talked to Ingamo (Hall Friendship Centre) and they said I could come down there, and I got a hold of William George and this is where I got started."