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Gwich’in Caribou anatomy and verbal art

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Title:Gwich’in Caribou anatomy and verbal art
Authors:Mishler, Craig
Contributors:Mishler, Craig (speaker)
Date Issued:12 Mar 2015
Description:The ethnopoetics of Gwich’in caribou anatomy rises out of our detailed compilation of more than one hundred fifty names for caribou bones, muscles, and internal organs. These names indicate that Gwich’in knowledge of caribou, accumulated over many centuries, is both systematic and precise. As it turns out, the names used for caribou body parts are rich in simile, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and personification, illustrating the elegant robust imaginative life of Gwich’in subsistence hunters.

My daughter, an accomplished poet, tells me that “language is not just about communication, but also about creativity,” and the data we have gathered in rural Alaska and the Yukon fully support that thesis. Gwich’in is a language with a full suite of tropes, and these tropes are deeply embedded both in personal experience narratives, traditional tales, riddles, and place names.

Ch’ikiidruu, the first rib, for example, is actually a double metaphor, referring to the northern hawk owl and to a hunting tool used to catch snowshoe hares. Ch'ak'oh Handzee, the atlas, a neck bone that can be difficult to sever with a knife, was also the Gwich’in name of the late Daniel John, a stubborn tough guy whom I recorded back in 1972. These are only two of many compelling examples. There is even a descriptive literary term, “Gwigwii’ii ginjik” for metaphor itself. All of this is empowering and uplifting.

Although Gwich’in is a small endangered language, we think that the use of figurative language residing in texts provides a rich supply of raw material and multiple contexts for developing curricula in Gwich’in schools. Gwich’in verbal art also provides opportunities for teaching the language at home and in the classroom. When students recognize how their elders and ancestors played with words, we believe they will gain a renewed enthusiasm for learning their heritage. At the same time, we think that the revelations of Gwich’in verbal art made in direct comparison to Western contemporary poetry make the world a richer and more fascinating place to live in.
Rights:Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections: 4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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