Jacey Firth-Hagen’s Gwich’in language revival campaign—with its flagship movement, #SpeakGwichinToMe—has just over 800 Facebook likes. In the age of Internet virulence, that doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that it’s nearly twice the number of people fluent in the Gwich’in language today. Starting with herself, Firth-Hagen is trying to change that.
“I know a lot of Gwich’in words, but I can’t actually have a conversation,” says Firth-Hagen, who grew up taking an hour of Gwich’in language lessons every day at school in her hometown of Inuvik, NWT. But those lessons didn’t exactly reflect the urgency of a language on the verge of disappearance.
“When I was in Grade 8, I realized we were learning about Egyptian history but we don’t learn about our own history. We don’t learn the history of the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, Tlicho, Slavey, any of the other distinct cultures.”
“Usually you learn the basics like colours, numbers, animals, like commands—‘listen,’ ‘how are you?’—just simple sentences,” she says. And she noticed other gaps in her education: there was little on Gwich’in history pre-contact with Europeans, for instance. “When I was in Grade 8, I realized we were learning about Egyptian history but we don’t learn about our own history,” she says. “We don’t learn the history of the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, Tlicho, Slavey, any of the other distinct cultures.”
In 2013, she got a message from Lawrence Nayally, a popular NWT radio host. He’d interviewed her once when she lived in Inuvik, and was now looking for someone to host Feel Real Radio, a program funded by the territorial government to broadcast positive, inspiring stories to NWT youth—in English. A few months later, she was recording her first episode, interviewing Minister of Health and Social Services Glen Abernethy. Once a week for the next 51 episodes, she chatted with musicians, playwrights, athletes, journalists and activists—sticking to the script at first, and with time, growing confident enough to improvise her questions.
At the same time, she started improvising her education. Now, whenever she visits her family in Inuvik, she records her grandmother’s stories in Gwich’in. She’s been asking elders and researchers for material to help learn more about Gwich’in history. This past February, at an indigenous languages symposium in Ottawa, she met Mikkel Rasmus Logje, who started the campaign #SpeakSamiToMe, hoping to revive his native Sami language (spoken throughout Scandinavia and Russia). He gave her permission to copy the idea of posting vocabulary on social media every day to encourage speakers, and #SpeakGwichinToMe was born alongside #SpeakTlichoToMe, started by Firth-Hagen’s friend Itoah Scott-Enns. They’ve sparked other similar campaigns for Ojibway and South Slavey, and their followers are growing in number.
For her dedication to her culture and her work preserving the Gwich’in language, Jacey Firth-Hagen made the shortlist for our Northerner of the Year.