Princess Daazhraii Johnson and the generation reclaiming Gwich'in

June 16, 2021 Season 1 Episode 8
Princess Daazhraii Johnson and the generation reclaiming Gwich'in
Show Notes Transcript

Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets'aii Gwich'in) is an Indigenous TV and film producer on a journey of learning, reclaiming, and revitalizing her ancestral language of Gwich’in, which is only spoken by a few hundred people.

In this new episode of Seedcast, find out how Indigenous residential schools on Turtle Island contributed to this language crisis and how Princess is inspiring a whole new generation to be curious about Indigenous languages through her work as a screenwriter on the Peabody award-winning PBS Kids series Molly of Denali.

Also, get a peek into the work Princess and fellow filmmaker Alisha Carlson are doing with Nia Tero’s Reciprocity Project.

Hosted by Jessica Ramirez; produced by Kavita Pillay; edited by Jenny Asarnow.

This episode won a 2022 Indigenous Journalists Association (IJA, formerly Native American Journalists Association) award for Best Radio/Podcast Coverage of Native America, Second Place.

Mentioned in this episode:

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:00:00] [00:00:00] Hello, Seedcast listeners, Jessica Ramirez here. I am joining you all from the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples. We created the Seedcast platform as a way to support the rights and traditional ways of Indigenous peoples. We share stories from around the world and honor guardians of the land, those who have lived a relationship with their traditional territories since time immemorial.

The episode you are about to hear is about language, but specifically, the language rooted in our cultures and the languages spoken by those who are now our ancestors.

[Theme Music By Mia Kami]

Jessica Ramirez: [00:01:06] As you know, I am not from Seattle, but from Texas. While Seedcast was putting out episodes over the last month, I went home to be with my grandma. Her name is Delia Benavides Ramirez. My Grandma Ramirez is my quote 'Mexican grandma'. Well, everyone in my family is Mexican, she is the one family member where I see our culture most alive. I see it in the wrinkles in her face, her brown skin, thick, dark, wavy hair, and the fluffy and chewy flour tortillas that she makes by hand.

For much of my childhood, this is all I knew of my grandma. You see, she speaks Spanish as her first language. [00:02:00] My first language is English. So, for a long time it was hard to understand each other more. Occasionally, me and my sisters would stay at her house for the day. I remember the creaky wood floors, the smell of oil in the frying pan from potato and egg tacos, and those rose bushes in her front yard. But I don't really remember my grandma.

I grew up nodding to her in agreement, even though I didn't quite understand what she way saying. We were watching tele novellas and listening to Spanish radio music stations, off of, like, a little radio all in complete boredom. It wasn't until my mid-twenties when I began teaching myself Spanish. Group conversation classes, then private lessons and then eventually, classes at the University of Guadalajara. And it [00:03:00] was only about seven years ago that I began speaking with my grandma in her first language. I could ask her questions and understand her answers. We finally could have conversations about weather, the food, her neighbors, but mostly, ask her about our family. It's lineage of four generations where the border crossed us, and trying to understand more of the story of our Indigenous identity.

My grandma was diagnosed with bone cancer, 12 years ago. And now, that cancer is having her experience the final stages of her life. For the first time in my life, I feel like I finally had the chance to build a relationship with my grandma. And I wish I had [00:04:00] more time. Oh, I'm so grateful for the time I spent with her, and even though she was in so much pain, and without much of appetite, she could still ask me to take her to get a shake and some french fries.

I want to introduce to you, the producer of today's episode, Kavita Pillay. Kavi is a producer and field production coordinator for the Reciprocity Project, which is a co-production between Nia Tero and Upstander Project. It's a big old thing with teams of Indigenous film makers and story tellers who are rooted [00:05:00] international heir community and who are producing short films about what reciprocity means to them. She is also a language reporter and co-hosts a podcast called Subtitle, which focuses on languages and the people who's peak them. She lives in the territory of the Massachusetts people, in what's now known as Boston.

Kavi, thank you so much for joining the Seedcast team with this very special episode.

Kavita Pillay: [00:05:31] Jess, y-you're so welcome, but first of all, thank you for sharing your story about your grandma and your relationship to language. You know, like you, I'm not fluent in my ancestral language of Malayalam, which is a south Indian language. I grew up hearing it, but it's only as an adult that I've put some effort to learn it better. And it's a challenge, for sure, to learn any language as an adult, even when it's a flourishing language, [00:06:00] and, you know, one that tens of hundreds of millions of people speak.

So, imagine learning a language that's spoken by only a few hundred people. An Indigenous language, a language that belongs to a people and a land that have been in relationship with each other for countless generations. That's what the women we'll hear from today is doing. Her name is Princess Daazhraii Johnson. Princess is Neets'aii Gwich'in, and her family is from the far north of Turtle Island. Princess is learning, and reclaiming, and revitalizing her ancestral language of Gwich'in. It's a severely endangered language, there's only a few hundred Gwich'in speakers in the world. I met Princess while working on the Reciprocity Project this year. She's been directing a short film for it, and since I'm a language reporter for Subtitle, which is a podcast about languages and the people who [00:07:00] speak them, Princess' story really stayed with me.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:07:03] Whoa, that's really unbelievable. I've, I've had the sincere pleasure of meeting Princess. You know, and pandemic mode, so it was online, it was via Zoom. And I could see in just the stories that she was telling, she is wearing a lot of hats. And I am excited to hear just how she is managing to do all of this.

Kavita Pillay: [00:07:27] Yeah, for sure. You know, she is actually an actor among other things, so it is very fitting that she plays many roles in her day to day life. Um, she's also a writer, she's an activist, a film maker, a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mom. In her own words, and I- I love this, she says she's deep in the momma Auntie phase of life, and she's also learner. You know? At mid life she's deeply committed to Gwich'in, and it's really hard. So, I wanted to [00:08:00] know her motivation. You know, why is it so important to her, and her community, to revive and reclaim Gwich'in?

Jessica Ramirez: [00:08:07] I can't wait to find out, too. Before we get into it, one thing to note. This episode contains a story which includes the violence of boarding schools. This violence has been brought to light more recently with the news about the Kamloops children, and a previously unknown burial site found at a boarding school in First Nation's territories. It's a living history that affects Indigenous peoples. You'll hear some of the remnants of these harmful policies in the story today. Our hearts are with those children who are now our ancestors. Their families and the Indigenous and native communities, much like Princess', who [00:09:00] fight hard for the resiliency of their peoples and cultures.

Princess Daazhr...: [00:09:53] 

My parents, my forefathers, take care of me,

Time goes on and on and we along with it,

My parents, my forefathers, take care of me.

[Gwich'in Song]

[Gwich'in Intro] 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.

[00:10:00] I introduced myself, um, with my name and naming also, who my grandparents are, because when you go to any community, um, in our region, the first thing if y- 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?" [laughs] 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, um, it's still my home village, it's where my grandpa was from.

Kavita Pillay: [00:10:58] Princess lives with her [00:11:00] 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 Daazhr...: [00:11:23] Well, today it is, uh, gorgeous. In Gwich'in you would say, Ch’itaii shroonch’yaa - It’s beautiful outside. Gashrain’ai: - 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: [00:11:42] And at that latitude, springtime means that the days start getting long.

Princess Daazhr...: [00:11:47] Well, sunrise at 3:52AM. Sunset is at 11:52PM.

Kavita Pillay: [00:11:54] There is another really important springtime event for the Gwich'in community.

Princess Daazhr...: [00:11:59] So, the [00:12:00] Caribou should be on their migration, um, 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: [00:12:24] 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 Daazhr...: [00:12:40] 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, you know, survival. [00:13:00] When springtime and fall time arrived 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, you know, the- the hunters are gonna go out there and that your hands are gonna, uh, if you are blessed will be busy handling the meat. And every time I am able to handle, um, our traditional foods like that, whether it's processing fish or processing meat, it gives me, um, it ignites what I feel like is my, the core of my- at the core of my DNA which is this relationship to that animal.

You know, 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: [00:13:57] I kept coming back to this point about the [Vadzaih ] 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 Daazhr...: [00:14:27] 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, [inaudible 00:14:52] man who saw a group of visiting [inaudible 00:14:55] in, coming down the street reportedly made a humorous [00:15:00] announcement saying, um, Ch’angwal naii adaa , the cannon bones are coming. [laughs] That is just the epitome of Gwich'in humor.

Kavita Pillay: [00:15:12] 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 Daazhr...: [00:15:45] My grandfather never really spoke English, um, 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 [00:16:00] that boarding school generation that was, you know, hit for speaking Gwich'in. Her journey and the journey of, of all those in her generation that went through the sort of trauma of the boarding school era, they are survivors.

Kavita Pillay: [00:16:22] 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 sub-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. [00:17:00] 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 Daazhr...: [00:17:36] Growing up she didn't teach us the language because she did not think it would serve us in this, you know, modern, white man's world. We are from a generation that we grew up hearing the language, but we e- e- could understand some of it, but we were not speakers.

Kavita Pillay: [00:17:53] Over the past year, I've gained an awe for Princess' efforts to learn Gwich'in. Because if you've set out to [00:18:00] 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 Daazhr...: [00:18:09] There's definitely moments where I feel frustrated in learning the language because I'm I- I wanna be fluent. I wish so badly that, you know, I had been brought up that it would- that Gwich'in was my first language.

Kavita Pillay: [00:18:26] 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 [00:19:00] violently and deliberately suppressed...

Princess Daazhr...: [00:19:02] It's a scary thing, a- a- and it's an emotional thing. [inaudible 00:19:13] 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: [00:19:42] 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: [00:19:56] [In Gwich'in] My name is Alisha, I’m from Raven’s Throat Creek. I live in Fairbanks. 

Kavita Pillay: [00:20:02] Alisha and Princess have been friends for decades, and their friendship has centered on a shared love for Gwich'in culture.

Princess Daazhr...: [00:20:08] 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, um, also some sayings like, um, [foreign language 00:20:27] which is, um, [foreign language 00:20:31] and then [foreign language 00:20:31] 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, um, 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... [00:21:00] [laughs] it's hard not to laugh at ourselves, right?

Kavita Pillay: [00:21:02] Like this one time, when Alisha was learning how to say my teeth.

Alisha Carlson: [00:21:08] It's like ] is, uh, my teeth?

Princess Daazhr...: [00:21:10] Shagho’ 

Alisha Carlson: [00:21:12] Shagho’?

Princess Daazhr...: [00:21:12] Oh, [foreign anguage 00:21:13]. Yeah.

Alisha Carlson: [00:21:13] Yeah, my teeth. Shagho’ 

Kavita Pillay: [00:21:15] And their teacher came into the room. She's a Gwich'in elder named Hilda Johnson.

Alisha Carlson: [00:21:20] And Hilda came in, and she was, uh, holding her cheek and was saying, "Oh, my teeth hurts." And I got all excited because I learned that word, and I said [gasps], I was like, uh, Naghoo iłts’ik?:  and then she, uh, 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 Naghoo iłts’ik?  that is my teeth, but when I say Naghoo iłts’ik? like, with that long oh at the end, it means, um... [laughs]

Princess Daazhr...: [00:21:54] [laughs]

Alisha Gilbert: [00:21:54] It means my balls. [laughs] [crosstalk [00:22:00] 00:22:00] testicles, so I said, "Your balls hurt?" [laughs] To her. So it's really, you know? You have to say it just right.

Princess Daazhr...: [00:22:12] [laughs] I feel like this happens the time in Gwich'in.

Alisha Carlson: [00:22:17] [laughs] So, yeah, that was a big learning curve for me. [laughs]

Kavita Pillay: [00:22:25] 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.

Coach: [00:22:46] We'll just do one line at a time.

Alisha Carlson: [00:22:48] Okay. [And then we ate that caribou and we knew it ]

Coach: [00:22:50] [And then we ate that caribou and we knew it ]

Alisha Carlson: [00:22:51] [And then we ate that caribou and we knew it ] [laughs]

So, [00:23:00] I had two coaches. I had Hilda and Princess. [fHow we live ask Gwich’in is very good]

Coach: [00:23:18] [How we live ask Gwich’in is very good]

Alisha Carlson: [00:23:19] And Hilda was coming at me with trying to get the tone down, and trying to say it, um, 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, you know, how to, um, have the words come from my heart and also have, you know, really mean what I'm saying.

[How we live ask Gwich’in is very good

And then we ate that caribou and we knew it

And then again, that caribou knew us.]

Kavita Pillay: [00:24:03] 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 Daazhr...: [00:24:34] The reason why I really wanted the film, um, to be in Gwich'in, well, one, why not? [laughs] um, 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: [00:24:58] [Hello, my grandson, what you doing? Heh? Ha’ah! Meat!  Thank you.  Good. Thank you]

Princess Daazhr...: [00:25:10] 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: [00:25:37] [What we call “Taking care of (our inner lives).”  That is very…it’s the real Dinjii Zhuh culture, that’s what they say.  From times past that is what we have done; Taken care of our inner lives. ]

Kavita Pillay: [00:25:40] If you spend time around children of a certain age, you may already be familiar with some of Princess' work.

Molly Of Denali: [00:25:48] Molly of Denali...

Kavita Pillay: [00:25:49] 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 [00:26:00] as a creative producer on Molly.

Molly of Denali: [00:26:02] Yeah!

Princess Daazhr...: [00:26:03] 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. [laughs] Of Indigenous people.

Kavita Pillay: [00:26:40] 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: [00:27:05] Your grandfather, he did not like that. He was proud of his family, he love our traditions. So, your grandpa, he said...

Molly of Denali:: [00:27:16] If I can't sing our songs, I just won't sing anymore. Ever.

Molly of Denali: [00:27:22] A lot of kids did the same. That's why so many of us stopped using our language and singing our songs.

Kavita Pillay: [00:27:29] Molly's grandpa does sing again. When Molly finds his drum and sings this song.

Molly: [00:27:34] [foreign language 00:27:35]

Kavita Pillay: [00:27:37] It was composed by Princess and her colleague, Dewey Kk'ołeyo Hoffman. They wrote it to honor all who survived boarding schools.

Molly: [00:27:49] [foreign language 00:27:46]

Molly: [00:27:53] [foreign language 00:28:00] Woo!

Jessica Ramirez: [00:27:58] Whoa, [00:28:00] what a gorgeous and powerful story. Princess is incredibly inspiring and I can see why she is your language hero.

Kavita Pillay: [00:28:32] Yes.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:28:33] I'm gonna say that she's mine, too. Kave, what did you take away from reporting this episode?

Kavita Pillay: [00:28:41] So, I wanted to understand and share Princess' story because it's a very personal way of understanding, you know, why is linguistic diversity important? Why are Indigenous languages important? You know, we live in a globalized world in which there [00:29:00] are a handful of languages that have unprecedented dominance, like you and I are speaking one of them right now. So, there are people who ask, you know, why not just learn English and Mandarin, and get on with it? And the answer to that is language is not just a practical thing. There is significant knowledge about the world that we lose, when we lose a language and there's so much to gain by learning and reviving a lang.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:29:28] Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Mm, absolutely. Yeah, I mean I think about how language creates such an immense precedent, it's political. It's also a place where we can hold curiosity and compassion about people who are just not like you. I feel like Princess' story is a hopeful one.

Kavita Pillay: [00:29:51] I agree, you know, she's taking on hard things with joy. And what she's doing has these larger, tangible implications for her [00:30:00] community. Like, several Molly of Denali episodes will soon be dubbed entirely in Gwich'in and her commitment to the language, it's also a family endeavor. You know, Princess' brother, he helped start the first Gwich'in immersion program for children. And, in a nice twist, Alisha Gilbert, who we also heard from in this episode, her toddler is one of the children enrolled in that program.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:30:28] Oh my gosh, this family. Yep, that's incredible. Well, Kave thank you so much for bringing this really incredible story.

Kavita Pillay: [00:30:39] [laughs] Oh, well, thank you, Jess. I mean, I should be thanking you, I mean it's a real honor to work on this story and I just, I love working with the team.

Jessica Ramirez: [00:30:53] Nia Tero is a Seattle based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non indigenous peoples, [00:31:00] with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship of all vito ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and disruption. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for humans and other species for generations to come. Find Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. And email us at We'd love to connect with you.

 This episode was produced by Kavita Pillay. It was mixed by Sauli Pillay. And edited by our senior producer Jenny Asarnow. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Fact checker is Roman Lee Johnson. Producer Felipe Contreras. [00:32:00] Marketing manager, Julie Keck. Social media manager, Hannah Pantaleo. And our theme song is by Mia Kami. I am Jessica Ramirez. Thanks for listening.

Special thanks for this episode goes to Michel Hurtubise and Patrick Cox for all their contributions and Arivahan for translations. 

Theme Song Mia Kami