Cynthia Pavlovich actively uses Dinjii Zhuh Ginjik, one of the official languages of the Northwest Territories, in her everyday life. She marks household objects with language labels, greets her loved ones in the language, and engages in audio lessons on a regular basis because reconnecting with her Indigenous language is important to her.
“I’ve always had a really strong urge to want to connect to my culture and a really strong desire to learn the language knowing that it’s endangered,” Pavlovich said. “I’ve attempted to learn, but I didn’t realize that there were so many different dialects based on different areas until now.”
As an intergenerational residential school Survivor, she grew up in Mayo, Yukon, learning about Na-Cho Nyäk Dun culture instead of her Teetł’it Gwich’in roots, and far from her traditional territory of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories.
Since the month of June, she has been engaged in an extensive learning journey, consistently connecting with a Dinjii Zhuh Ginjik speaker via virtual meetings five days a week.
“I get to choose what kind of things that I want to learn and then she just kind of helps me,” Pavlovich said. “I think the big challenge was to realize that I couldn’t approach gwich’in in the way I’ve learned English and I can’t just say something and expect it to be able to be translated.”
She is a student in the Northwest Territories mentorship apprenticeship program.
The apprenticeship program began as a pilot in 2019 and has since witnessed a remarkable rise in its participants, with the number of mentor-apprentice pairs jumping from 30 to nearly 60 for the 2023-2024 cohort.
The program currently offers pairing opportunities for Dene Kǝdǝ́, Dëne Sųłıné, Dene Zhatıé, Dinjii Zhu’ Ginjik, Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun, nēhiyawēwin, and Tłı̨chǫ languages.
Pavlovich expressed her reconnection to her culture as healing, something that would make her ancestors proud. Her goal is to become proficient in the dinjii zhuh ginkik language in order to pass it down to her three sons.
“It’s very interesting to see how they have different words for families,” Pavlovich said. “There’s not a lot of negative, there are no words for calling someone stupid for example.”
Shawna Coleman, NWT language secretariat, wants in on the program too and plans to enroll to learn Chipewyan.
“The apprentices do a pre-assessment and have an evaluator that evaluates their language at the start of the program, and then at the end of the program they do a post assessment using the oral proficiency scale,” Coleman said.
The mentorship apprentice program has seen a consistent influx of individuals from the Dehcho region, according to the language secretariat, whereas the Beauford Delta region and Inuit languages have a smaller representation of participants.
Mentees typically select their mentor, often opting for someone within their own community.
After that, they undergo 200 hours of language training, beginning with brief dialogues and advancing to more immersive language environments.
“It’s early adults that are interested in wanting to reclaim their languages and recognizing that maybe their family members are passing or their community members with the knowledge of language or passing,” Coleman said. “And we have folks that are using a sleeping language, so they’re older folks that are like, ‘yeah, it’s there. I can understand an elder. I know what they are saying, but I don’t know how to speak it.’”
The latest 2021 figures released by the NWT Bureau of Statistics reveal that the majority of speakers of Indigenous languages are aged 45 years and above.
In Fort Smith, Paul Boucher finds solace by the fire pit at Paul William Kaeser High School.
He pushed for the creation of this open and inviting atmosphere in front of the school to educate others in his traditional knowledge and Chipewyan classes.
“The kids see it, the community sees it every day, and it makes a big difference, but outside the school there’s no where that requires you to speak the language,” Boucher said. “There’s the challenge of keeping the language alive – how do we evolve the language and come up with words that don’t exist?”
Despite his enthusiasm for the mentorship program as a mentee, Paul faces challenges finding individuals to converse with as Elders and other long-time language speakers pass.
“1.85 percent of the population of Fort Smith speaks Chipewyan and when I came here in 2015 there was a lot more people speaking the language, right now I could count maybe 25 people,” Boucher said.