Our Language

Background

Gwich’in territory in Alaska is found in the Yukon Flats region, which is an extensive area comprised of wetlands and forests surrounding the Yukon River, Porcupine River, and Chandalar River in the interior of Alaska. There are ten Gwich’in villages, including Arctic Village, Beaver, Birch Creek, Canyon Village, Chalkyitsik, Circle, Gwichyaa Zee Gwich’in Tribal Government (Fort Yukon), Rampart, Stevens Village, and Venetie. Many Gwich’in community members also live in Alaska’s urban areas, such as Fairbanks, which is south of the Yukon Flats region. In order to access Gwich’in villages, one must either fly in or travel by boat.

Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa—an Athabascan language spoken by the Gwich’in people—is a severely endangered language primarily spoken in northeastern interior Alaska in the Yukon Flats region and northwestern Canada. Speakers in Old Crow in Canada have a much different dialect than those in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska; however, even Alaskan Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa can be categorized into two mutually-intelligible dialects that are loosely organized by geographic area: (1) Neetsaii Gwich’in spoken in and around Arctic Village and Venetie; and (2) Gwich’yaa Gwich’in spoken in and around Fort Yukon.

While the total number of Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa speakers is only roughly known, our findings suggest that there are between 150 and 250 speakers of various proficiency levels in Alaska. The majority of first-language Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa speakers are part of the Elder or grandparent generation, and the youngest speakers are in their late 30s. Gwich’in children are not learning Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa in their homes or schools. As a result, fluent Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa speakers are passing while no new speakers are being produced. In order to preserve our language, therefore, we must revitalize the language now by creating a new, younger generation of speakers, and by integrating the Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa language into our education systems and daily lives.