A group of toddlers sits transfixed on the hands of an elder as she kneads dough and sings to herself in Gwich’in. Finally, once it is flattened, she walks out of the room to cook it and the children scatter around the room, only to gather around her once more with wide-eyed-wonder as she emerges from the back room with a traditional drum.
Before long, she is leading the kids around the room in a traditional drum dance as they ask her questions about the drum, the dance and the Gwich’in language.
Every Monday through Friday, ‘Jijuu’ (grandma) Mabel English spends her morning teaching Gwich’in to the class of eight kids, aging from one-and-a-half to three years old. Aside from helping the kids learn the traditional names for animals, people and plants, she also shows them traditional dancing, sings classic songs and tells old stories to help immerse the children in her culture.
For a Feb. 12 open house, Jijuu and the kids made bannock, with each of the kids taking a try at rolling the dough and kneading it. Then, after the food was in the oven the kids took turns teaching each other words as she observed.
Part of what draws her here every day is the love of being jijuu, but English noted there is a deeper purpose to her daily lessons. She wants to connect the children with opportunities many of their parents were denied.
“I remember when they were working on the Alaska Highway, all the girls who were raised in the residential school were taken out there to cook,” said English. “They didn’t know how to sew, or trap or anything.”
Getting people back in touch with their culture has to start with the language, so English is getting the kids hooked while their young.
Started just this last October, the Gwich’in Language Immersion program has blown past expectations. From having never spoken a word of Gwich’in when they began, many of the kids were now picking up the language and speaking it to each other.
“They’ll tell each other to come sit in Gwich’in and talk about washing their hands or inviting their friends to come to the door so they can go to the gym, they’re using all those phrases in Gwich’in,” said Children First executive director Patricia Davison. “They’ll go up to the pictures on the wall and say the names of the animals and the colours, they’ll even teach each other and role model what they’re learning in the class.”
She also noted the kids were developing greater confidence in their social skills as they got a better handle on the language.
It’s not just the children learning either. While many of the staff are skilled speakers of the language, none of them have the command of it that Jijuu does.
“We’re so fortunate to have Elder Mabel English in,” added Davison. “She really supports the children and the staff, so the staff who aren’t quite as fluent are learning the language alongside the children.
“The staff sent out little cheat sheets home to the families so the parents can use Gwich’in and know what their children are working on.”
Davison added the next step was to set up evening and weekend classes for the children’s families so they can keep up with the young keeners. Though she noted the kids were getting a distinct jump on the language by learning it at their age.
“Right now, their brains are wiring for language. This is the optimum time to learn it,” she said. “Whatever language they’re exposed to, they will learn. If they’re exposed to the sounds now, they will retain those sounds.
“Our brains starts losing the ability to pick up new sounds, but at this age they are picking up and learning everything they’re hearing.”
She noted the Children First Centre had recently secured funding to keep the program going until March 31 and had located an additional funder to keep the program going until June. But securing long term funding was still distant on the horizon.
“Our goal is that this group will have time to be immersed in Gwich’in and come away strong in the language before they enter the school system,” said Davison.