In this piece, Jacey Firth-Hagen talks about her complex relationship with her language, Dinjii Zhuh Ginjik, and her language advocacy work through #SpeakGwichinToMe.
Mahsi cho, Jacey, for sharing your love of your language with us and your continued efforts.
Filmed on June 8, 2019 in Yellowknife, Treaty 11 territory, NT.
Cinematographer – Kaayla Whachell
Series Editor – Madison Thomas
Colour – Benoît Côté + Outpost MTL S
Sound mix – Seratone Studios
Portrait - Natasha Donovan
So much knowledge is in my language. We say that half our heart is a caribou- that we wouldn't be able to survive without the caribou and the caribou couldn't survive without us. And Gwich'in and caribou used to be one being and then we split, and that's why we say that half our heart is a caribou. And this is from oral stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
I've been told by elders that our language comes from the land. So, we have to go back to the land to learn our language. And the best ways to learn our language are through song and prayer. Our languages are hidden in the land – you just have to find it.
This is really cool, actually, the showcase. All these different maps. There's treaties and land claims, indigenous groups and languages - Dinjii Zhu' Ginjik (Gwich'in).
Learning my language has really helped me mental health-wise. In high school, I really struggled. I was one of those kids that didn't play sports, didn't like talking, hated school, didn't have that many friends, but my language always made me happy.
Vahn Gwinzii, my name is Little Marten Jacey Firth-Hagen. I was born and raised in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and currently living in Yellowknife. I am the creator of the Gwich'in language revival campaign, #SpeakGwichinToMe, a social media language revitalization initiative. Sharing my love of my language, the importance of languages, and encouraging people to speak their language, as the Gwich'in language is one of the most endangered languages in Canada. There are less than 500 speakers, and most of our speakers are over the age of 65.
I was one of the few people from the Northwest Territories to win the Peter Gzosky award for literacy for my work with the Gwich'in language. So, I received a plaque and this gorgeous hide print.
So, I was raised by my father, Willard Hagen, like really traditionally, and he always taught me about my grandparents, my great-grandparents. All the love that's been through my family. And my mother Sylvia Firth, and my stepmother Mavis Jacobson really instilled intergenerational love within me. I learned about the trials and triumphs of my grandparents and really being able to spend time with elders - especially with my jijuu, Sarah McLeod-Firth. I just found out a while back that my jijuu spoke Gwich'in to me as a baby.
And I always wanted to learn my language. Being taught who I am as an Indigenous woman growing up that I'm Gwich'in, Dene, Scottish, and Norwegian and I was raised strongly in my Gwich'in identity - on the land, eating traditional foods, learning from elders. And I always wondered, "If I'm Gwich'in, why can't I speak my language?"
Some of our languages are only in museums. It really is a blessing and a curse. It's an incredible resource to have our items kept by museums. And it's changing, but a lot of times if Indigenous peoples want their items back, they want the remnants of their ancestors back, it's hard. And a lot of these items - I'm not saying they are here - but they were taken in not a right way.
Over 300 years ago, the first non-Indigenous people started coming to the Northwest Territories. "Discovering" the land, [they]came across Gwich'in and Inuvaluit peoples, started building up a partnership. After traders and explorers started moving into the NWT, missionaries came, and of course, their goal was to Christianize the Indigenous peoples. And by the time my grandma was born, if she even wanted to learn the Gwich'in language, it was discouraged.
It was thought to be old-fashioned, like, "We speak English now." My grandparents, not all of them, but they went to residential school. And then, speaking our Indigenous languages was prohibited. So, at a young age this affected me. Of course, it's difficult for anyone to hear… and I vowed to myself as a young girl that I'm going to become fluent in my language one day. I wanted to be able to speak Gwich'in like I speak English.
So, I'm also wearing my “kaiitreh”, or “kaiichan”, from Gwich'in woman Mildred Edwards, from Aklavik, Northwest Territories. And these are called crow boots. It's very unique and gorgeous sought-after style. This is a rabbit fur-"geh". When I wear my items, when I wear my jewellery, my adornments, I'm really showing who I am as a Gwich'in woman, as an Indigenous woman and person.
I would look through the Gwich'in dictionary and pick out words in my language that I wanted to learn. Then I had language classes - maybe an hour a day, every day. So, I would meet up with my teacher after class and go through my little list of words that I picked out from the dictionary. And she would go over them with me and then for about a week, I would go home and maybe spend like thirty minutes to an hour memorizing my list of Gwich'in words. I did this every week for maybe about a year or so, or more.
After I graduated high school and I moved to the capital city, Yellowknife, for college, I moved away from my community and I kind of lost my strong ties to learning Gwich'in. I moved away from my grandmother who always sat down and talked with me and taught me. She's a strongest person in our family, our matriarch. So humorous! Being able to spend time with her, learning from her, I would ask her questions about my language and watching her sew. Just, like, I have to do this for you, for my family. We've been through so much.
So, I was interested in creating a hashtag campaign because hashtags are so accessible. You can click on a hashtag on social media and you'll be opened up to all these other posts by people talking about it, creating photos, submitting selfies–really making their own content and raising awareness, making a conversation. And that's why you're going to find when you use the hashtag #SpeakGwichinToMe. It's a community.
In the beginning, there were youth from across Gwich'in communities talking about the language. Even simple words like "geh" - rabbit, or "asheh" - snow. At the end of the day, I really wanted to create #SpeakGwichinToMe to give back, to honour people, and to raise awareness that if we don't speak our languages, who is? Who's going to pass on our language if it is not being spoken? How is it going to survive? I love my language and I never want our languages to die, to disappear. And how important language revitalization is.
I'm not fluent today. I'm 25. So, over ten years later now, but I'm always learning. I love speaking my language. I speak with others, I teach on social media, and I'm getting better. I've been told by Gwich'in elders and fluent language speakers that could take me my whole life to learn my language and that's okay too.
But you know, one word a day equals 365 words that you learn a year. It can be hard, it can be difficult, it can be isolating, but it's worth it. You know your ancestors are proud when you speak your language.
Now there's language revitalization movements across the Arctic and really across Canada, and the world. I'm not saying I inspired it all, but it's really an incredible time to be a part of this movement and in language revitalization! It's our community, it's our peoples, it's our youth - they're taking our language and our culture back.