There’s a new Gwich’in alphabet book and it’s available for free

a line of books
Rev. Scott Fisher looks over new copies of Alaska Gwich’in Alphabet Coloring Book released at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Interior Aleutians campus building on March 24. (Frank Chythlook/KUAC)

A new alphabet book for Gwich’in has been published and is available as a free download to language learners. It is part of a long-term community-led project of language revitalization.

A work session last weekend with first-language speakers recorded new pieces for a permanent database.

The work session spanned four days and involved 20 people. One of the organizers, Evon Peter of the Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute of Alaska, said participants documented speech samples and context of Gwich’in.

“Over this weekend, we will have recorded likely over 700 words and added them to our documentation in the Gwich’in database,” he said.

Peter said the Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute is dedicated to the revitalization of Dinjii Zhuh K’yàa, the Gwich’in language. It partnered with the Beaver Village Council, who received an Administration for Native Americans language preservation grant that is funding the effort. Charleen Fisher, another organizer of the work session, is helping manage the grant.

“The grant was written to do an online dictionary, a vocab builder app — it’s like a flashcard app — and then six stories,” said Fisher. “We have two. The first is the alphabet coloring book. One is going to be released hopefully within the next couple of months, and we will be working on the other four before the project period is over.”

people at a table
Gwich’in language learners document words for a permanent database at a Fairbanks work session sponsored by the Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute of Alaska and the Village of Beaver. (Robyne/KUAC)

That first product, the alphabet book, had a flashy release in Fairbanks last Friday. It shows 51 Gwich’in letters and 72 words. A colorful bound edition can be purchased but it is more important to the creators to get the book distributed to people who want to learn the language, so they are giving it away in a free download.

Virgina Peter teaches Gwich’in to Kindergarten through 12th graders in Fort Yukon. She is contributing to the database as a speaker, but really wants more language products to come out of the project.

“ I’m all alone in Fort Yukon School teaching this, so I’m very thankful that I’m here,” she said. “I really love this book, this alphabet coloring book. I mean, kids will really like it.”

Gwich’in is a severely endangered language spoken in northeastern Interior Alaska in the Yukon Flats region and northwestern Canada.

“There’s a few that are speakers and a few that understand what we’re saying,” said Peter. “It is very important that we keep our language going, and doing this kind (of thing) will keep us going.”

The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute of Alaska was launched in 2019, and with the Beaver Village Council grant funding, they will be able to have in-person work sessions about every two months.

“We are studying Dinjii Zhuh K’yàa, our language here, and we’re also working on our language here together,”  Evon Peter said in Gwich’in.

Language preservation work has been underway in Alaska for decades.

Paul Williams Sr., 86, came from Beaver village for the work session. He said he remembers having his language and culture erased.

“ I was four years old. They told us, ‘And you have to learn English and you can’t speak your language anymore. You have to live like English and speak like English,’” Williams said.

a portrait of a man with glasses
Paul Williams Sr. reflects on preserving Gwich’in language at a work session held at the Native Movement Fairbanks office. (Robyne/KUAC)

Williams said contributing to the database, the online dictionary and any future storybooks that might come out of the project is spiritually uplifting.

“ I know we got long ways to go. Yes, but you know, this is a good start,” he said. “That book, anybody can look at it. I see how they say Rabbit. ‘Geh.’ You know this is beautiful language we got. It’s worth saving.”

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