In 2003, elder Angie Joseph-Rear stated:
“We tend to overlook the importance of recognizing the cultural parts of our language. We need to educate other people that our identity-language-culture are all one. One cannot survive without the other.”
Traditionally the people who lived at the mouth of the Klondike River spoke a dialect of Hän, a language spoken in an area centred on the Yukon River drainage in the western Yukon and eastern Alaska. Today our First Nation includes people whose ancestors spoke Gwich’in, Northern Tutchone and other languages. Most of these are part of the Athapaskan family of languages that extends across the north and can even be found in parts of the USA in languages such as Navajo and Apache.
Of necessity our people were linguists, able to communicate with neighbouring First Nations and early non-native traders. As more newcomers moved into our traditional territory, we were pressured to adopt the new culture and speak English. At residential schools, children were even punished for speaking their mother tongue.
Losing language meant losing much more: concepts, elders’ stories, place names and songs. A key part of our revitalization has been documenting and teaching our language to all generations.
Chief Ed Taylor presents Elder Edward Roberts with a Certificate of Recognition in 2013. Mr. Simon is one of the few fluent speakers of Hän and has done much to help us document the language.