The NWTRPA started Walk to Tuk in 2010 to encourage NWT residents to stay active during the coldest, darkest months of the year. What is amazing to witness is how Walk to Tuk has become so much more than a winter walking challenge. For members of Gwıch’ın Nahtraahadaal, for example, Walk to Tuk is an opportunity for language learning and language revitalization. Gwıch’ın Nahtraahadaal means “Gwıch’ın Walking” in Dınjıı Zhu’ Gınjık (Gwıch’ın language).
Team captain Jolene McDonald, who grew up in Teetł’ıt Zheh (Fort McPherson), has long been an enthusiastic Walk to Tuk participant: “I love Walk to Tuk and think it is an amazing initiative to get people outside in the cold winter months.” This year, Jolene saw how Walk to Tuk could provide an “opportunity to get people walking and talking in Gwıch’ın.”
Gwıch’ın Nahtraahadaal is a small team with just six members. All of the members are Gwıch’ın. Two are language speakers; the remaining four, including Jolene, are language learners: “It is my dream to learn Dınjıı Zhu’ Gınjık. It is the language of my ancestors so what they believed and valued, as well as how they saw the world is embedded within the language. I feel that if I can learn Dınjıı Zhu’ Gınjık then not only will I be more connected to my ancestors, but I will also see the world through Gwıch’ın eyes.”
Learning a new language isn’t easy, especially on your own, as Jolene has experienced firsthand: “I am finding it very challenging to do on my own, which is why Walk to Tuk seemed like the perfect opportunity to get people together to practice with.”
Jolene created a Facebook page for her team. Each week, she posts a video of a phrase or two that team members can practice with friends and families as they walk. Walkers were introduced to two phrases for the first week of Walk to Tuk: Jıı jıdıı (What is this?) and Nıł’ınh (I see…). Jolene explains, “The idea was that if you were walking with a partner you could point at something and ask ‘Jıı jıdıı’ and the other person could respond with something like: ‘Ts’ııvıı nıł’ınh’ (I see a tree).”
Team members are encouraged to do a bit of homework before heading out for their walk, in this case identifying words for things they might see on the trail, such as neegoo (fox), daagoo (ptarmigan), or dachan zheh (cabin). In addition to asking a language speaker, learners can use a Gwıch’ın dictionary—some of which are available online (e.g. here or here)—to develop their vocabulary. There is also a Gwıch’ın app available for both Apple devices and Android devices.
Jolene is also organizing team walks that include both language speakers and learners, which create opportunities “for some on-the-spot learning and teaching.”
Though we are still in the early weeks of Walk to Tuk, Jolene has already learned an important lesson about language learning: “It takes a community, that’s for sure!” Thankfully, in addition to her fellow walkers, she has the support and expertise of her colleagues at the Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat and her family; her aunt and grandmother are helping with words, phrases, and pronunciation.
Jolene’s decision to use Walk to Tuk to learn her language and to contribute to the rekindling of Dınjıı Zhu’ Gınjık is timely. The United Nations has declared 2019 the “International Year of Indigenous Languages” to raise awareness about the importance of language to Indigenous ways of life and knowledges, but also to draw attention to the threats that exist to the continuity of Indigenous languages. In 2016, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues declared that “40 per cent of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing.” Dınjıı Zhu’ Gınjık is one of these threatened languages. As of 2016, there were fewer than 400 Gwıch’ın speakers in Canada.
We’re so inspired by Jolene’s efforts to get people walking and talking in Gwıch’ın!
Check out Speak Gwich’in To Me on Twitter @SpeakGwichin.