Our Journey, Forward Together
Gwaandak Theatre and Vuntut Gwitchin Government wish to acknowledge that they have created and shared these Vuntut Gwitchin radio stories on the traditional territory of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (Old Crow, Yukon), Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council (Whitehorse, Yukon).
We acknowledge the Tagish Kwan as the original people who live and occupy the lands within the Traditional Territory, which lie at the headwaters of the Yukon River. To these Nations, their leadership and their citizens hosting us on their lands: Mahsi’ choo. Shäw níthän. Kwänäschis. Gunalchîsh. Thank you from the depths of our hearts.
“To honour our Elders, we have to try.”
Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together) / Vuntut Gwitchin Stories
These radio plays and script booklets are part of an innovative multi-year project that honours age-old storytelling traditions and Indigenous language revitalization.
The Van Tat Gwich’in — “People of the Lakes,” referring to the Crow Flats area — are renowned storytellers, and do they ever have stories to tell. After all, they have survived for thousands of years in one of the toughest northern climates around. Their traditional territory in the north Yukon is vast, beautiful and unforgiving.
They have faced famine and navigated blizzard-swept mountain ranges and surging rivers they know like the back of their hand. They built and used monumental, hairpin-shaped log fences, some up to one kilometre long, to drive and communally harvest large numbers of caribou. Today, they govern themselves with pride while living with the ongoing effects of colonization, adapting to rapid societal changes, resisting threats to the caribou from oil development, and facing an environmental climate change crisis.
Now based in the fly-in community of Old Crow, population 300, people continue to rely on the Porcupine Caribou herd, and on other fish and game. They’re deeply connected to and interrelated with other Gwich’in communities in Alaska and the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.
Van Tat Elders have passed down a rich variety of stories for untold centuries: creation; the epic adventures of Ch’ataiiyuukaih, or the Man Who Paddled a Different Route, and Ko’ Edhanh or Man Without Fire; assorted escapades of clever girls and old women; tales of first contact with European settlers and more modern times; and many others.
As is the way with stories, tellers have their own style. Versions are known across Gwich’in territory and in other Indigenous communities too. After all, both people and great stories travel. Leonard Linklater, co-founder of Gwaandak Theatre, recalls as a boy hearing his Uncle Abe Thomas, who moved from Rampart House on the Yukon-Alaska border to the Mackenzie Delta for marriage, telling Van Tat Ch’ataiiyuukaih stories into the night at fish camp at the mouth of the Peel River.
Nowadays, it’s not as easy to hear stories like these. Many incredible Elders, their stories held like encyclopedias in their heads and hearts, have passed on. As elsewhere, television, the internet, video games and other popular forms of entertainment have taken root.
It’s even more rare to hear these stories in the Gwich’in language, and that’s no accident. In the residential school system, the Canadian state and churches perpetrated what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission terms “cultural genocide.”
Among other things, these entities deliberately suppressed the mother tongues of the Gwich’in and other Indigenous peoples, the First Peoples of this land we now call Canada. Students forced into residential schools were forbidden to speak these languages. Many more lost their language; others did not feel proud or safe enough to pass it on to next generations. The last Yukon/northern B.C. residential school for Yukon First Nation students closed in 1975. Indigenous language programs have sprung up since the 1970s, but have been severely underfunded.
The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to increase awareness and spur action to promote and protect Indigenous languages around the world. According to the UN, 40 per cent of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing. The majority are spoken by Indigenous peoples.
Gwich’in is in the large Athabaskan or Dené language family. Today there are about 400 speakers in Canada, and a few hundred more in Alaska. UNESCO identifies Gwich’in, the other Yukon Indigenous languages (Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Tlingit, Upper Tanana) and the majority of Canadian Indigenous languages as endangered.
In one initiative to address this situation Vuntut Gwitchin Government and Gwaandak Theatre partnered on this series of radio plays — Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together) – Vuntut Gwitchin Stories.
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation proclaims on its website: “We are the Vuntut Gwitchin of the North Yukon, with boundless pride in our ancient cultural heritage and ancestral homelands. We exercise our inherent right to self government, to take the responsibility for the general welfare of our citizens, and to provide for the good government of our communities, lands and resources.” Vuntut Gwitchin Government is a leader and innovator in preserving and promoting Van Tat culture, heritage and language, while also embracing new media.
Gwaandak Theatre’s vision is to empower Indigenous and Northern voices around the world. Gwaandak means “storyteller” or “telling a story” in Gwich’in. Since 2000 Gwaandak Theatre has supported the development, production and touring of numerous plays showcasing Indigenous voices and artists, for both youth and adult audiences.
Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says the radio plays are an opportunity to share community stories with a wider audience through traditional oral storytelling.
“Vuntut Gwitchin storytellers breathe life into our culture and perform the vital task of passing our oral history to many generations to come,” says Chief Tizya-Tramm. “The partnership between Gwaandak Theatre and community storytellers has brought to life stories that can be performed live or played on the radio in both Gwich’in and English, enabling our rich wealth of stories to continue to entertain, enrich and educate.”
Leonard Linklater, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen and one of the creative team members on Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak, believes that theatre is an important tool for healing. “These Gwich’in stories hold the rhythm of the land in them and are a source of strength in a challenging environment. Language grows out of the land. The stories reflect our relationship to that land. The more you are tied to the land, through strong roots, the more confident you are to grow as a person,” he says. For him, these stories teach non-Gwich’in people the importance of the caribou, land and water to the people of the northern Yukon.
How we began
Language and stories have been intertwined for the project partners since this initiative started. We wanted to honour and build on the oral tradition, with full community involvement and consultation. We wanted to find new ways to share and celebrate these stories with the younger Gwich’in generation and with others. Who doesn’t love a great story? And we wanted to use as much Gwich’in as we possibly could, even though most of us were not fluent!
Starting in February 2016, with the VGG Heritage Department, we held several storytelling workshops and evening community events in Old Crow. We played theatre games and traditional stick-pull games using a greased stick. We shared what we knew of our favourite Van Tat stories and voted on which ones to tackle first. We feasted. And always, Elders came and told stories and guided us.
We knew the power of theatre and stories. We knew the community had to be on board every step of the way. We knew the journey had to be more important than any end goals. Our beginnings in the community hall were both exhilarating and terrifying. None of us knew exactly how this project would go. We had never done anything like this before. People in Old Crow knew oral storytelling but understandably were less familiar with theatre. There were many moments of fear and uncertainty about how to move forward together. We had to work it out, in the community and long distance between Old Crow and Whitehorse. We had to try.
We chose stories of resilience, resourcefulness and humour, qualities that Vuntut Gwitchin have in spades. Gwaandak artists worked with Gwich’in storytellers and with Elders, scriptwriters, translators, language specialists and community members to develop and shape the radio plays. Between workshops, we’d go off and work on the scripts, then bring them to the Elders for feedback. Our theatre team included some artists of settler descent — including Gwaandak’s Artistic Director (anglo-settler), of mixed descent, and from other nations, such as playwright-director Yvette Nolan, who is Algonquin/Irish.
Fluent speakers and translators were an integral part of the process from the start. As the scripts came together, language specialists told us they preferred to work in teams, not in isolation, so VGG Heritage organized translation workshops.
In February 2019, exactly three years after our first workshop, we recorded most of the plays on location in Old Crow’s tiny CROW FM radio studio over seven intense days. The outstanding team included Elders, language specialists, youth, award-winning theatre artists, and of course, the amazing cooks. We had a public reading and feast at the Community Hall. People laughed so hard.
In March 2019 we shared excerpts of the plays at The Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse in school and community shows filled with laughter from performers and audiences alike. We had 11 people on stage, 10 of them Gwich’in, telling stories in both Gwich’in and English to a mainly English-speaking audience, with special guests including co-emcee Paul Kennedy of CBC Ideas. And people understood just fine. CBC Ideas later aired a one-hour broadcast featuring highlights from the Whitehorse readings and interviews with language and culture champions, reaching tens of thousands more Canadians; you can listen to it here.
The support of language specialists was incredible and essential. We found that many people know far more of the language than they give themselves credit for. Performers stepped out of their comfort zones and rose to the occasion, offering moving and powerful performances both in the recording studio and on stage. We are inspired by younger people learning and teaching the language.
We didn’t set out to produce radio plays but this is the perfect medium. Although we embrace the immediacy and community-building inherent in live theatre storytelling, northerners love radio and still rely on it for important information. Radio is intimate. And the process allowed us to record most readers in their home community of Old Crow on a flexible schedule, in between work and family commitments, and schedule others into Jordy Walker’s backyard studio in surburban Whitehorse.
These radio plays and booklets can be shared far and wide. The beautiful voices of the readers, from children to Elders, each with their distinctive way of speaking, are captured and preserved, at this moment in time. These plays also can be read out loud, together, in a classroom or library, community hall or around the campfire.
About the scripts and translations
There is limited fluency — even in Gwich’in communities — and limited resources for both youth and adult language learners, although thankfully this is changing. Vuntut Gwitchin Government has taken extraordinary steps to develop and offer an adult language learner program, incorporating Van Tat stories. Other Gwich’in communities are making efforts, including immersion camps.
Many people want to reclaim or learn their language, but it’s not easy. Learners may struggle with a lack of confidence and with shame, along with time constraints. Learning opportunities such as adult classes exist but have been limited. School children in Old Crow receive about one hour daily of language class in curriculum developed through the Yukon Native Language Centre and its dedicated teachers.
We chose to record and publish these radio plays in both Gwich’in and English to promote language acquisition in an enjoyable, accessible way. Readers and listeners can easily follow along with the script in both languages. They should feel free to stop and start, re-listen and try words and phrases out loud at their own pace. We invite them to share our joy in playing with the language in these adaptations, breathing contemporary energy and creativity into it as an organic living entity.
We also advocate and promote greater appreciation of and support for revitalization of Gwich’in and other endangered Indigenous languages among all peoples. These languages hold traditional knowledge and perspectives and are treasures that we all must fight for. We call on the federal government to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 13 through 17 on Language and Culture.
Writing and spelling Gwich’in
Gwich’in is traditionally an oral language. The first writing system was developed by Church of England missionary Robert McDonald from Manitoba, who began working with the Gwich’in in the 1860s. He called the people and the language Takudh and translated the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and a hymnal with the help of Gwich’in people. These are still used today, mainly by older people. Most younger people have a hard time reading them.
In the 1960s, linguist and Bible translator Richard Mueller developed the modern orthography (writing and spelling system) for Alaskan Gwich’in. The Yukon Native Language Centre adapted this in the mid-1970s for writing Canadian dialects. The scripts in these booklets are in this writing system. We have included a guide to Gwich’in pronunciation in the booklets.
We approached these scripts in several different ways. The late storyteller Sarah Abel Chitze told her stories — Vah Srigwehdli’ / The One Who Survived, Shanaghan Kat Nanaa’in Hah / Two Old Women and the Bushman, and Tl’oo Thał / Grass Pants — in Gwich’in. VGG Heritage staff members transcribed and translated the recordings over the years. We worked from a combination of English translations and the original Gwich’in. Then translators brought the scripts back into Gwich’in. In other cases we began with a story directly told in English, such as Stephen Frost Sr.’s story of his first snow machine, a story he shared with his godson Leonard Linklater.
As you explore these radio plays, you may notice that the English text is not always a literal translation of the Gwich’in. The two languages are very different. Language structure is one example — Gwich’in speakers like to say that English is backwards! The general meaning, however, is very close.
We wanted to let each language breathe and be natural and did not want to impose a word-by-word translation.
As well, people have their own unique way of speaking, in all languages. Notice how different readers say the Gwich’in word shijyàa (meaning friend or partner); some people say sitjah or simply j’ah. We wanted to reflect that.
In Tl’oo Thał / Grass Pants, we chose to record the traders’ dialogue only in English, even in the Gwich’in version. This was to illustrate the language barrier between the Gwich’in person and the newcomers. We also chose not to translate the radio announcer in Ch’iitsii Khał Datl’oo / The Blue Cruiser.
We also had to prioritize which scripts and sections to translate into Gwich’in, being mindful of the few experienced translators, who are older and juggling multiple responsibilities. Some sections are more challenging and unfamiliar, such as traders’ words like “crikey” and “galoot.” You’ll also notice variations in spellings of the people and territory. The language, along with references to most Gwich’in communities, is spelled “Gwich’in.” The Vuntut Gwitchin choose to spell their own name differently. Using the modern Gwich’in orthography, Vuntut is spelled Van Tat (People of the Lakes, or lake people, referring to the many lakes in the Crow Flats area).
Not long before the launch of these plays and booklets, we said goodbye to Elder Joel Peter, who passed away on October 15, 2019 at the age of 76. Joel has been a rock to all of us on this project.
Joel was raised by his grandparents Big Joe and Myra Kyikavichik and his aunt Ellen Bruce. He had extensive knowledge of areas in the Vuntut Gwitchin traditional territory. He remembered the old stories down to the finest details and was always supportive of projects that involve Gwich’in language and culture. Joel was a member of the North Yukon Renewable Resources Council and provided advice and recommendations on files such as Vuntut National Park, caribou management and park development.
For the past 11 years Joel worked extensively on heritage projects with Brandon Kyikavichik. A master speaker of Gwich’in, he also worked with Sophia Flather on language curriculum.
He guided us at numerous storytelling and language sessions in the Old Crow Community Hall with his wisdom, his stories, his observations of the changing climate, his fluency in Gwich’in and his gentle, quiet manner. We knew he wanted most to be out on the land. He often traveled alone to his traditional trapping areas in Crow Flats north of the community and in the lakes south of Old Crow.
But he made so much time for this project and for younger people who wanted to learn. In February 2019, Joel spent many hours in the tiny CROW FM radio station recording the lead character in Vah Srigwehdli’ / The One Who Survived, in Gwich’in for our radio plays. Joel, we miss you, but your teachings are within us.
Gather ’round the campfire
As we know, Indigenous stories were not celebrated, nurtured or shared in the Canadian mainstream for most of the country’s history. We believe this is a loss not only for Indigenous people, but for all of us.
The survival of these stories — and the Gwich’in language — is testament to the strength and resilience of the Van Tat people and their knowledge that these are cultural treasures. These stories deserve to be heard and appreciated more widely. We hope you’ll enjoy our interpretations. Maybe you’ll be inspired to tell more of your stories.
Grab a cup of tea and bannock, or, if you’re really lucky, nilii gai – dried caribou meat.
Anaii — Come
Ch’oodhadhohch’eii — Listen
About Vuntut Gwitchin Government
We are the Vuntut Gwitchin of the North Yukon, with boundless pride in our ancient cultural heritage and ancestral homelands. We exercise our inherent right to self government, to take responsibility for the general welfare of our citizens, and to provide for the good government of our communities, lands and resources.
About Gwaandak Theatre
Gwaandak Theatre has been empowering Indigenous and Northern voices since 2000. As the only Indigenous-centred theatre company in the Yukon, we are committed to presenting artistic programming that promotes meaningful reconciliation and deeper understanding between Yukoners, both Indigenous and settlers. We tell stories that explore themes of decolonization, cultural identity, social justice, and human rights. One meaning of the word gwaandak in the Gwich’in language is “storyteller.”