Guide to the Gwich'in Athabaskan Language Collection


All materials in the Gwich’in collection are either written in or about the Gwich’in language. The earliest documents come from expedition accounts and the later material comes largely from contributions by the Alaska Native Language Center and the Yukon Native Language Centre staff. Much of the collection dates from the mid- to late-1970s during an era of more intensive fieldwork and educational outreach with the Gwich’in language. In the late 1990s, there was an influx of literacy related publications. The bulk of the collection consists of manuscripts related to Gwich’in educational materials, dictionaries and word lists, and ethnographic, religious, and traditional texts. In addition, there are materials on Gwich’in linguistics, fieldnotes, research papers and conference materials. Photocopied material occasionally represents original material held by other repositories and certain reproduction and use restriction apply.

Language Information

Gwich'in (Kutchin, Loucheux, Tukudh) is the Athabascan language spoken in the northeastern Alaska villages of Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Circle, and Birch Creek, as well as in a wide adjacent area of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory. The Gwich'in population of Alaska is about 1,100, and of that number about 300 are speakers of the language. Gwich'in has had a written literature since the 1870s, when Episcopalian missionaries began extensive work on the language. A modern writing system was designed in the 1960s by Richard Mueller, and many books, including story collections and linguistic material, have been published by Katherine Peter, Jeff Leer, Lillian Garnett, Kathy Sikorski, and others.

Scope and Content Note

The Alaska Native Language Archive Gwich’in manuscript holdings contain approximately 550 items dating between 1845 and 2001. The bulk of the collection consists of educational materials, such as schoolbooks, literacy workshop materials, lecture notes from language classes, and academic research in phonology, grammar, and dialectology produced in the 1970s. However, the early and later eras of linguistic activity, namely the missionary work of the 1870s and the language revitalization efforts during the 1980s and 1990s, are well represented within the Gwich’in holdings. Vocabulary lists and dictionaries have been produced fairly continuously the 19th century to the present.

Much of the early material (1845-1860; totaling approximately 10 items) consists of photocopied excerpts of publications, the originals of which are held by other repositories. Typically, the photocopies cover relevant excerpts of Gwich’in words found in ethnographies, expedition reports, and journal accounts, such as A. K. Isbister’s journals (1845), A. H. Murray’s “Journal of the Yukon” (1848), or Sir John Richardson’s “Arctic Searching Expedition” report (1851).

By the 1860s, the collection begins to reflect a shift from language materials derived from early expeditions and encounters to linguistic research for religious purposes. Roughly 100 items between 1860 and 1910 related to language study and recordation for religious ends, such as prayers, hymn books, and Bible translations, with the majority of these items produced by Reverend Robert McDonald (1865-1957) and a lesser though significant number of items from Jean Seguin (1862-1888). Copies of ethnographic work during this era is also present in the holdings, such as the collection of traditional stories by Emile Petitot and the vocabulary lists compiled by Robert Kennicott in 1867.

1910-1920 marks another shift in the type of material found in the collection, away from religious documents and books towards more academic research resulting in dictionaries, grammar, studies of phonology, and the collection of traditional stories. Approximately 35 items comprise the material between 1910 and the early 1940s.

The years 1940 to 1960 are scantily represented, and are comprised of roughly 25 items. From 1960, due largely to the work of Richard Mueller, there was a drastic increase in linguistic activity and subsequently in the Gwich’in archival materials. Mueller’s work (spanning 1960-1973), as with most of the material from the 1960s and 1970s, is reflective of the broader trend toward work in education and language preservation for all Alaska Native Languages which then led to a higher volume of published material throughout the state. Archival items from this era are typified by educational materials, transcriptions of traditional stories, and an increase in academic research on phonology, dialectology, fieldwork, and language workshop publications.

One may find a number of Gwich’in schoolbooks from the 1970s, such as those translated by Lea Druck for Alaska State Operated Schools or Irene Robert for the Alaska Native Education Board. Other large segments of the material come from ethnographic and education efforts by Moses P. Gabriel (20 items), the fieldwork and educational material created by John Ritter (20 items) covering lecture materials, place name research, and lexical work and the grammar and phonology research conducted by Jeff Leer between 1973 and 1994. The bulk of the educational materials are listed under the authorship of Katherine Peter, although they are the result of collaborative efforts of numerous narrators (125 items) and include literacy publications, schoolbooks published by the Alaska Native Language Center and the National Bilingual Material Development Center, lecture notes from classes at UAF, traditional story translations, and lexical files.

Education material continues to dominate the collection through the 1980s to 2000 (125 items), with a noticeable increase in material published in Canada by entities such as the Yukon Native Language Centre or the Aboriginal Language Services of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. A few items pertaining to specific studies in grammar and phonology may also be found along with an occasional religions text.

Extent: 37 manuscript boxes, 4 note card boxes, books, and oversize folders totaling 15 linear feet.
Languages: Collection languages are Gwich’in, French, and English.