Yukon Elders are broadcasting hockey in Kaska

You’ve probably never heard play-by-play like this before.

Thanks to Kaska Elders Testloa Smith and Hammond Dick, hockey fans are getting a special treat – commentary in Kaska.

“I’m a pretty big hockey fan,” Smith told APTN News. “I’ve been playing since I was knee high.”

Smith, who is a native speaker, is lending his language skills for the 44th annual Yukon Native Hockey Tournament which kicked off Thursday.

The initiative is being led by Liard First Nation’s (LFN) language department in an effort to help spread the language to hockey fans.

The commentary is being livestreamed to the department’s Facebook page and is also being broadcast on Whitehorse based radio station CHON-FM. The Elders will be commentating on hockey games that involve Kaska teams.

Hockey fans can expect to hear Kaska phrases such as labas (puck), abas kwḗtsʼít (the puck went in) and gādā yéhchū́t! (save!).

Smith noted the Kaska language is very descriptive compared to English, and some words for hockey are fairly new since they don’t exist in Kaska.

Take the word skates, or bēzinī kē yéh kā́genehtąh, which translated into English means metal-shoes-with-they-play-hockey.

“They’re words we came up with, because we don’t have any word for that in our language,” Smith said.

The hope, he said, is for Kaska speakers to enjoy hockey commentary in their language, or, for people who aren’t familiar with it to learn a new word or two.

“It’s good to come up with all these phrases and as people catch on, they’ll understand it better,” Smith said.

He said Kaska speakers in Yukon’s two Kaska communities of Watson Lake and Ross River are enjoying the commentary.

“We got really good feedback,” he said. “(They said) it’s the first time they’ve heard the language with hockey.”

Kaska Elders Testloa Smith and Hammond Dick co-commentating at the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament on March 21. Photo (Sara Connors/APTN)

‘Really empowering’

Smith has a deep rooted love for the sport.

He said it was one of his only means of escape while attending the Lower Post residential school in Lower Post in far northern B.C.

“It’s good ‘cause you’d get away from the mission school stuff and play hockey. I think that’s what saved a lot of us as hockey players, you’d get away on the ice,” he said.

Smith said these days there’s not many fluent speakers left. That’s why exposing younger generations to their mother tongue is important.

“Our language kinda dying out in a way,” he said. “We’ve got Elders getting really concerned and getting together and talking about the language itself and how they’ll be able to use it.”

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One youth trying to reclaim his language is Paul Caesar-Jules.

Caesar-Jules is learning Kaska through the LFN’s language department. He helped create a 20-page document with Kaska hockey phrases and provided some play-by-play during a game on Thursday.

He said despite having the document on hand to lookup vocabulary and phrases, he had troubles trying to commentate in a language he’s not yet fluent in.

“It was just so quick,” he said. It’s kind of hard speaking Kaska so quickly. One of the things I said on the air was ‘it’s really hard. It’s really difficult speaking in Kaska.’”

Caesar said watching his Elders commentate in Kaska makes him appreciate the language even more.

“You can really see the enthusiasm when they speak. I could hear (Smith) talk and it’s just really awesome to understand what he’s saying,” he said. “It’s just really empowering and makes me want to keep on speaking Kaska,” he said.

Smith said events like the hockey tournament are helping keep the language alive.

“I think it took a lot courage for people like myself, our Elders, to be in a position to speak Kaska. Slowly it’s been coming back.”

The Yukon Native Hockey Tournament wraps up Sunday.

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