A language that survived the boarding schools

13 min readSep 29, 2021


Three Gwich’in girls (Adam Jones / Creative Commons)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, it’s Patrick Cox here. We’re back with a one-off episode. I also have lots of exciting news about Subtitle and the Subtitle-adjacent world. Wow, that sounds like a parallel universe. More about that later.

OK, today’s episode. I lived for a while in Alaska, in fact it was the first place in North America I ever lived. I guess I got a kind of skewed picture of the continent because in Alaska, native American language and culture is prominent. So a skewed picture in a good way. I mean if I’d landed in, I dunno, New Hampshire, it wouldn’t have been the same. The news was full of stories featuring native Americans, there were cultural events, I worked alongside native Americans — I waited tables in restaurants in Anchorage. I interviewed native American politicians on local public radio. But what I never did — I was too broke — was travel to the interior, the villages, the center of native Alaskan life where you’d hear people speaking in their own tribal languages. Or if they didn’t speak them, they might be learning from old people who did speak them.

This is a story about that, about keeping a language going, against the odds.. It’s a story an activist, a language activist from interior Alaska. Her name is Princess Daazhraii Johnson. Princess is Neets’ąįį Gwich’in. Princess is learning her ancestral language of Gwich’in. There’s only a few hundred Gwich’in speakers in the world.

Kavita Pillay, Subtitle’s co-host met Princess recently and they talked. This is the result. The episode was originally commissioned by a podcast called Seedcast, which tells stories about indigenous people and issues.

More about that later. First here’s Princess Daazhraii Johnson speaking and singing in Gwich’in.

Princess Daazhraii sings in Gwich’in

Princess Daazhraii: My Relatives: My name is Tundra Swan. I am from the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in country. My grandparents are the late Katherine and Stephen Peter. My mothers name is Attline and the late Ernest Raboff. My sons are K’edzaazhe’, Aldzak, and Delmore. My husband is James. I am happily fulfilled today. Thank you.

I introduced myself with my name and naming also, who my grandparents are, because when you go to any community in our region, the first thing if you don’t introduce who your family is because that’s really how people know you, they’re gonna say, uh, “Whose kid are you?” Or “Who are your grandparents?” And that is how we really know who people are. Generally, you would also say where your from. So, my home village is Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ: Raven Throat Creek, even though I didn’t grow up there, it’s still my home village. It’s where my grandpa was from.

Kavita Pillay: Princess lives with her husband and children on the ancestral lands of the Dene people of the Lower Tanana River. It’s now known as Fairbanks, Alaska. Often when I talk with her, I get an update on what it’s like just outside her door. I’ve heard about the colors of the leaves in October, how many degrees below zero it gets in January, the snowmelt in April, and in late May…

Princess Daazhraii: Well, today it is gorgeous. In Gwich’in, you would say, Ch’itaii shroonch’yaa [meaning] it’s beautiful outside. Gashrain’ai [meaning] the sun is shining It’s beautiful, it’s bright, it’s sunny, it’s warm. It’s supposed to get up to 70 degrees today.

Kavita Pillay: And at that latitude, springtime means that the days start getting long.

Princess Daazhraii: Well, sunrise at 3:52am. Sunset is at 11:52pm.

Kavita Pillay: There is another really important springtime event for the Gwich’in community.

Princess Daazhraii: So, the Caribou should be on their migration, back to the coastal plane of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, back to the calving grounds. And in Gwich’in we call it where all life came from or the sacred place for life begins. So, they’ll go up to the coastal plane and in a two week period of time they’re going to have up to 40 thousand calves.

Kavita Pillay: As I’ve gotten to know Princess and listen to her talk about what it means to be Gwich’in, this central relationship to the Caribou comes up again and again. It’s like there’s water, and air, and land and the Caribou.

Princess Daazhraii: I mean, I feel like my very existence is in large part due to the existence of the Porcupine Caribou herd. And the Porcupine Caribou herd is named after the Porcupine River, actually, that runs through our Gwich’in territories in our communities. Everything is about survival. When springtime and fall time arrive in our villages, it’s a sense of anticipation and excitement and they’re coming — like, are coming and you know that you’re gonna eat good, you know that the hunters are gonna go out there and that your hands are gonna — if you are blessed — will be busy handling the meat. And every time I am able to handle our traditional foods like that, whether it’s processing fish or processing meat, it gives me — it ignites what I feel like is my, the core of my DNA which is this relationship to that animal. In our culture the Caribou give themselves to you. It is such a- a humbling and, like, beautiful process. I do not take it for granted.

Kavita Pillay: I kept coming back to this point about the Caribou giving themselves to you. It seemed poetic, like a metaphor for her commitment to studying the language. It’s not the aggressiveness of a hunt, it’s a patient, humbling, beautiful process. And there’s also joy and fun in it. When I asked Princess whether she had any favorite words in Gwich’in, she pulled out a book called The Man Who Became A Caribou.

Princess Daazhraii: Whoa, that’s a fun word. Ch’angwal which is the cannon bones of the Caribou, and it’s a favorite food for the community, especially up in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ which is Venetie, Alaska . We’re so associated with Ch’angwal which that — with that cannon bone — that right here in the book it says, A Fort Yukon man who saw a group of visiting [inaudible] in, coming down the street reportedly made a humorous announcement saying, um, Ch’angwal naii adaa , the cannon bones are coming. That is just the epitome of Gwich’in humor.

Kavita Pillay: Gwich’in connects Princess to the land and to the people who came before her. Hundreds of generations who inhabited the area now known as Eastern Alaska, and Western Canada for tens of thousands of years. But Gwich’in is now spoken by only about 550 people. In 2018, the governor of Alaska declared a linguistic emergency to support 21 officially recognized Alaskan native languages, including Gwich’in, all of which are at risk of extinction.

Princess Daazhraii: My grandfather never really spoke English, and my grandmother, you know, they all s- that primary language was Gwich’in. Gwich’in was my mother’s first language. My mother was of that boarding school generation that was, you know, hit for speaking Gwich’in. Her journey and the journey of all those in her generation that went through the sort of trauma of the boarding school era, they are survivors.

Kavita Pillay: A few days after Princess and I spoke, news of a mass grave at what was once Canada’s largest residential school, made headlines around the world. There were 139 such schools in Canada, and 367 boarding schools in the US. Princess’ mom was among the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from across Turtle Island who were forcibly separated from their families. In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission made clear that these schools were a key part of the country’s cultural genocide against Indigenous people. In the most literal sense, Princess’ mom, and those who made it out, were survivors.

UNESCO has designated Gwich’in a severely endangered language, and UNESCO has a definition for this. It means the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves. This parent generation, that’s Princess’ mom’s generation.

Princess Daazhraii: Growing up she didn’t teach us the language because she did not think it would serve us in this modern, white man’s world. We are from a generation that we grew up hearing the language, but we could understand some of it, but we were not speakers.

Kavita Pillay: Over the past year, I’ve gained an awe for Princess’ efforts to learn Gwich’in. Because if you’ve set out to learn a language after age 10 or so, you know the strength of will that it takes to do so. It can feel like climbing a sheer rock cliff.

Princess Daazhraii: There’s definitely moments where I feel frustrated in learning the language because I wanna be fluent. I wish so badly that, you know, I had been brought up that Gwich’in was my first language.

Kavita Pillay: And it takes a certain vulnerability to learn a language as an adult because you’re going to make a ton of mistakes and you have to let go of your ego. But language is such a defining trait of our species. It’s how we create relationships with the people around us. It’s also one of the ways we connect it those who came before us, and those who will come after. Language is a connective thread across time. So, when you’re learning in order to revitalize an endangered language, a language to which you have ancestral connections, a language that was violently and deliberately suppressed…

Princess Daazhraii: It’s a scary thing, and it’s an emotional thing. To learn our native languages — you know, knowing that they were intentionally eradicated. And so, you want to be in an environment with other people that understand that, that are sensitive to that, who are not going to make fun of you, who when you are not perfect in your pronunciation.

Kavita Pillay: On any given Saturday morning, you’ll find Princess at a residential home outside Fairbanks. She goes there with seven or eight other people who are also learning Gwich’in, including her friend Alisha Gilbert, who is Gwich’in, herself.

Alisha Carlson [in Gwich’in]: My name is Alisha, I’m from Raven’s Throat Creek. I live in Fairbanks.

Kavita Pillay: Alisha and Princess have been friends for decades, and their friendship has centered on a shared love for Gwich’in culture.

Princess Daazhraii: Immediately you see signs in the Gwich’in language, you see some pictures of, um, Ch’idaa’ik (your jacket) or Dzirh (mittens) or Tsee (hat), and also some sayings like [speaks in Gwich’in], which is [speaks in Gwich’in] and then [speaks in Gwich’in], is “your shoes,” right? Put them on or take them off. And these are commands that we need to use with out children every single day. And they’re important pieces of the language that get us to that place where, you know, we’re improving on our proficiency and fluency. Now mind you, sometimes we do mess up and we say things that are real funny. So, it’s hard not to laugh at ourselves, right?

Kavita Pillay: Like this one time, when Alisha was learning how to say “my teeth.”

Alisha Carlson: It’s like Shagho’, “my teeth”

Princess Daazhraii: Shagho’

Alisha Carlson: Yeah, “my teeth.” Shagho’

Kavita Pillay: And their teacher came into the room. She’s a Gwich’in elder named Hilda Johnson.

Alisha Carlson: And Hilda came in, and she was, holding her cheek and was saying, “Oh, my teeth hurt.” And I got all excited because I learned that word, and I said [gasps], I was like, Naghoo iłts’ik?: and then she, which I was saying, uh, “Your teeth hurts?” And she looked at me really weird and was just, like, shocked, and she’s like, “What did you say?” When I say Shagho’ “that is my teeth,” but when I say Shagho’ like, with that long ‘O’ at the end, it means, um… my balls. [laughs]. So I said, “Your balls hurt?” [laughs] To her. So it’s really, you know? You have to say it just right.

Princess Daazhraii: I feel like this happens the time in Gwich’in.

Alisha Carlson: So, yeah, that was a big learning curve for me. [laughs]

Kavita Pillay: And they’re not just learning, they’re also creating in the language. Princess and Alisha had been working with Hilda on the short film that they’re producing for the Reciprocity Project. It looks at what reciprocity means to them as Gwich’in women. It’s entirely in Gwich’in. Alisha is the narrator, which required some coaching from Hilda.

Hilda and Alisha practice a Gwich’in phrase.

Alisha Carlson: So I had two coaches. I had Hilda and Princess. And Hilda was coming at me with trying to get the tone down, and trying to say it precisely, how I’m supposed to say it. So, she was really stern and direct with me when speaking. And then I had Princess beside me, and she was coaching me on how to have the words come from my heart and also have, you know, really mean what I’m saying.

Alisha practices a Gwich’in phrase.

Kavita Pillay: These days there’s a growing sense that mediums like film and audio and even social media can bring new momentum to preserving and promoting Indigenous languages. For an oral language like Gwich’in, being able to share it by hearing it has obvious advantages over written materials like text books. Princess is part of a generation of Indigenous creatives embracing the ways in which film, television and an expanding number of other technologies can revive a language.

Princess Daazhraii: The reason why I really wanted the film to be in Gwich’in, well, one, why not? I wanted to showcase that our generation is really making the effort to use the language, and express ourselves in the language and it’s really powerful.

Film clip in Gwich’in

Princess Daazhraii: And there’s such a vulnerability in showing ourselves on film, this is us reclaiming our language, so I just think the whole experience has been really healing, it’s been so much fun, and that’s been really nice.

Film clip in Gwich’in

Kavita Pillay: If you spend time around children of a certain age, you may already be familiar with some of Princess’ work. Molly of Denali is an animated TV show on PBS. It’s the first national children’s show centered on an Alaskan native main character. Princess spent four years as a creative producer on Molly.

Princess Daazhraii: I’m still writing for the show, making sure that it was not only as authentic a portrayal as possible but that we were also incorporating our Alaskan native values, making sure that we were really as best we possibly could, taking that opportunity of a story that is going to be broadcast, ultimately, to an international audience. To counter the harmful stereotypes that have permeated media for, since the beginning of film. Of Indigenous people.

Kavita Pillay: Molly is a lively ten year old who celebrates her culture, and words from Gwich’in and other Alaskan native languages are a regular feature of the show. But Molly of Denali also addresses painful topics. In an episode titled ‘Grandpa’s Drum’, Molly learns that her grandpa was sent [00:27:00] off to boarding school as a child, where he was forbidden to sing in his own language.

Molly of Denali clip: Your grandfather, he did not like that. He was proud of his family, he love our traditions. So, your grandpa, he said, “If I can’t sing our songs, I just won’t sing anymore. Ever.” A lot of kids did the same. That’s why so many of us stopped using our language and singing our songs.

Kavita Pillay: Molly’s grandpa does sing again. When Molly finds his drum and sings this song.

Song from Molly of Denali

Kavita Pillay: It was composed by Princess and her colleague, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman. They wrote it to honor all who survived boarding schools.

Song from Molly of Denali

Patrick Cox: I don’t know if you have watched Molly of Denali, or if you have kids if they’ve watched it. Who am I to judge — I’m not quite the target audience, age-wise — but I like it. Several episodes, by the way, will soon be dubbed into Gwich’in. Also, Princess’ brother helped start the first Gwich’in immersion program for children. It runs in the family, this commitment to language.

Our thanks to the Seedcast podcast and the Nia Tero Foundation for that story. You can find full credits in the transcript to this episode.

OK, so here’s the Subtitle news. We’re going to be back late this year or early next with a season of 20 new episodes. We’re hugely grateful to our partners at the Linguistic Society of America, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which again is funding us. Kavita and me and a few others, we’re going to be chasing down a whole new bunch of language-themed stories.

We’ll also have an email newsletter soon — it’ll be a quick read that I hope will be entertaining too. There’ll be lots of recommendations, news of interesting research, some fun stuff. We’re also going to have a Patreon. Yes, we’ll be entering the brave new world of Patreon-izing, or being Patreon-ized. That just sounds terrible doesn’t it? I promise it won’t be! It’ll be much better than that.

I also want to say thanks to another partner, the Hub & Spoke Podcast Collective, of which Subtitle is a member, Hub & Spoke has also been busy raising money — enough to create a job, and there is a post for that job online. It’s a Development and Communications Manager. If you’re interested, head over the website . And while you’re there, check out some of the other great podcasts. To pick out one, Ministry of Ideas which is small show about big ideas. It’s not that small a show but the ideas are well, massive. Like in the most recent episode which is about how technology has affected our understanding about time, and our sense of what’s sacred. That’s Ministry of Ideas.

And one more recommendation: If you liked this episode, do check out the Seedcast podcast. The most recent episode features a mother and daughter from the Philippines. They’ve advocated for indigenous territories in their homeland and now they’re doing the same thing globally.

OK, we’ll be back with lots more soon: Kavi from her new base in Helsinki. And me from my not so new base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Until then, Bye!

Seedcast Credits:

This episode was produced by Kavita Pillay, mixed by Sauli Pillay and edited by Jenny Asarnow. Executive producer: Tracy Rector. Fact checker: Roman Lee Johnson. Producer: Felipe Contreras. Marketing manager: Julie Keck. Social media manager: Hannah Pantaleo. Theme song is by Mia Kami. Host: Jessica Ramirez. Nia Tero is a Seattle based foundation made up of both Indigenous and non indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship of all vital ecosystems. Find Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Email: seedcast@niatero.org.

Special thanks to Michel Hurtubise and Arivahan.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod