Princess Daazhraii Johnson and the Generation Reclaiming Gwich'in

September 13, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3
Princess Daazhraii Johnson and the Generation Reclaiming Gwich'in
Show Notes Transcript

Imagine learning a language that is spoken by only a few hundred people—an Indigenous language that belongs to a people and a land that have been in relationship with each other for countless generations. This is the heart of our episode about Gwich’in language revitalization in the Boreal. 

Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets'aii Gwich'in) is an Indigenous TV and film producer on a patient journey of learning, reclaiming, and revitalizing Gwich’in. The language connects her to the land and to the people who came before her. “Our generation is really making the effort to use the language, and express ourselves in the language, and it's really powerful,” she explains. 
Princess and her dear friend Alishia Carlson (also Neets'aii Gwich'in) talk with language journalist Kavita Pillay about the struggles of learning Gwich’in, and the joy with which they approach the effort, especially in relation to the language learning of children. 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 in this episode: a celebration of caribou. 

Content note: The episode touches on the violence of residential schools on Turtle Island and how they contributed to today’s language crisis. 

Learn more: 

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. 

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer: Kavita Pillay. Story Editor: Jenny Asarnow. Special thanks to Michelle Hurtubise and Patrick Cox. 

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.

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Princess Daazhraii Johnson and the Generation Reclaiming Gwich'in
Seedcast Season 3 BONUS
September 13, 2023

[Theme music begins, and plays softly in the background]

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: This is Seedcast. I'm Jessica Ramirez. The episode you're 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. 

Last time on Seedcast, we heard a Sonic Journey that invited us to listen deeply to the language of Gwich'in. And today we're going to hear an episode from Season One of Seedcast about the people who are reclaiming that language.

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:00:56] Jessica: I want to introduce you to the producer of today's episode, Kavita Pillay. She's a producer from Reciprocity Project, and you've heard us talk about this—it's a series of short films from Nia Tero that highlight the Indigenous value of reciprocity. Kavi is also a language reporter and co-hosts a podcast called “Subtitle”, which focuses on languages and the people who speak them. 

Here's Kavi with the episode.

[theme music gently fades into a different upbeat track]

[00:01:27] Kavita Pillay: 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 woman 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 speak them, Princess' story really stayed with me.

[upbeat music continues in the background]

[00:02:25] Jessica: I've had the sincere pleasure of meeting Princess, you know, in 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.

[00:02:45] Kavita: 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. She's also a writer, she's an activist, a filmmaker, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mom. In her own words—and I love this—she says she's deep in the Momma/Auntie phase of life. And she's also a learner. You know? At midlife she's deeply committed to Gwich'in, and it's really hard. So, I wanted to know her motivation—you know, why is it so important to her, and her community, to revive and reclaim Gwich'in?

[upbeat music continues to play in the background]

[00:03:28] Jessica: Before we get into it, one thing to note. This episode contains a story which includes the violence of boarding schools. 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 fight hard for the resiliency of their peoples and cultures.

[00:04:09] Princess Daazhraii Johnson: [Singing in Gwich’in - Translation: 

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.]
 [Introduction in Gwich'in - Translation: 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.]

[00:04:59] Princess: I introduced myself with my name, and naming also who my grandparents are, because when you go to any community in our region, the first thing 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 you're 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.

[00:05:44] Kavita: Princess lives with her 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...

[00:06:09] Princess: Well, today it is gorgeous. In Gwich'in you would say, “Ch’itaii shroonch’yaa or Gashrain’ai: / Ch’itaii gashrain’ai:”it's beautiful, it's bright, it's sunny, it's warm. It's supposed to get up to 70 degrees today.

[00:06:28] Kavita: And at that latitude, springtime means that the days start getting long.

[00:06:33] Princess: Well, sunrise at 3:52am. Sunset is at 11:42pm!

[00:06:40] Kavita: There’s another really important springtime event for the Gwich'in community.

[00:06:44] Princess: So, the Caribou should be on their migration back to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, back to the calving grounds. And in Gwich'in we call it [speaks Gwich’in phrase], or “The sacred place where life begins”. So, they'll go up to the coastal plain, and in a two-week period of time they're going to have up to 40,000 calves.

[00:07:10] Kavita: 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.

[00:07:25] Princess: 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. When springtime and fall time arrive in our villages, it's a sense of anticipation and excitement and they’re coming—like, the Vadzaih are coming—and you know that you're gonna eat good, you know that the hunters are gonna go out there and that your hands are gonna—if you are blessed—will be busy handling the meat. And every time I am able to handle our traditional foods like that, whether it's processing fish or processing meat, it gives me—it ignites what I feel like is 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 humbling and beautiful process. I do not take it for granted.

[00:08:43] Kavita: I kept coming back to this point about the 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. I'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.”

[00:09:13] Princess: Oh, that's a fun word, “Ch’angwal”, “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. We're so associated with Ch’angwal which, with that cannon bone, that right here in the book it says, a Fort Yukon man who saw a group of visiting Neets'it Gwich'in coming down the street reportedly made a humorous announcement saying, “Ch’angwal naii adaa,” “The cannon bones are coming!” [laughs] That is just the epitome of Gwich'in humor.

[00::5809] Kavita: 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.

[00:10:31] Princess: My grandfather never really spoke English, and my grandmother, you know, they all—that primary language was Gwich'in. 

[ambient music begins playing in the background]

Gwich'in was my mother's first language. My mother was of that boarding school generation that was, you know, hit for speaking Gwich'in. Her journey and the journey of all those in her generation that went through the sort of trauma of the boarding school era. They are survivors.

[00:11:08] Kavita: 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 such 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. In the most literal sense, Princess' mom, and those who made it out, were survivors.

[melodic ambient music continues]

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.

[00:12:22] Princess: 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 could understand some of it, but we were not speakers.

[00:12:38] Kavita: Over the past year, I've gained an awe for Princess' efforts to learn Gwich'in. Because if you've set out to 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.

[00:12:55] Princess: There's definitely moments where I feel frustrated in learning the language because I'm—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.

[00:13:11] Kavita: 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 with 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 violently and deliberately suppressed...

[00:13:48] Princess: It's a scary thing, and it's an emotional thing… [pauses and sighs as voice cracks] …to learn 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, you know, when you are not perfect in your pronunciation.

[00:14:28] Kavita: 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.

[00:14:42] Alisha Gilbert: [Introduction in Gwich'in – translation: My name is Alisha, I’m from Raven’s Throat Creek. I live in Fairbanks.] 

[00:14:48] Kavita: Alisha and Princess have been friends for decades, and their friendship has centered on a shared love for Gwich'in culture.

[00:14:54] Princess: Immediately, you see signs in the Gwich'in language. You see some pictures of “Ch’idaa’ik”, your jacket; or “Dzirh”, mittens; or “Tsee”, hat; and also some sayings like, [Gwich’in phrase], which is [Gwich’in word] or [Gwich’in word]; and then [Gwich’in word] is your shoes, right? “Put them on” or “Take them off”. And these are commands that we need to use with our children every single day. And they're important 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…[laughs] it's hard not to laugh at ourselves, right?

[00:15:48] Kavita: Like this one time, when Alisha was learning how to say “my teeth”.

[00:15:53] Alisha: It's like “Shagho’” is “my teeth”

[00:15:56] Princess: Shagho’ 

[00:15:57] Alisha: Shagho’

[00:15:58] Princess: Oh, Shagho’, Yeah.

[00:15:59] Alisha: Yeah, “my teeth”, Shagho’ 

[00:16:01] Kavita: And their teacher came into the room. She's a Gwich'in elder named Hilda Johnson.

[00:16:05] Alisha: And Hilda came in, and she was 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—which I was saying, “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 Shagho’  that is “my teeth”, but when I say it like, with that long “oh” at the end, it means, means “my balls”...

[everyone laughs together uproariously]

…gonads, testicles! So I said, "Your balls hurt?" [laughs] to her. So it's really, you know? You have to say it just right!

[00:16:59] Princess: [laughing] I feel like this happens all the time in Gwich'in.

[00:17:04] Alisha: [laughing] So, yeah, that was a big learning curve for me! [laughs]

[00:17:11] Kavita: 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.

[00:17:32] Hilda Johnson: We'll just do one line at a time.

[00:17:34] Alisha: Okay. [Speaks in Gwich’in – translation: And then we ate that caribou and we knew it]

[00:17:40] Hilda: [Repeats phrase in Gwich’in for Alisha to speak again – And then we ate that caribou and we knew it]

[00:] Alisha: [Repeats phrase in Gwich’in - And then we ate that caribou and we knew it]  [giggles]

So, I had two coaches. I had Hilda and Princess. 

[Speaks another line in Gwich’in – translation: How we live as Gwich’in is very good]

[00:18:02] Hilda: [Repeats phrase in Gwich’in for Alisha to speak again - How we live as Gwich’in is very good]

[00:18:05] Alisha: And Hilda was coming at me with trying to get the tone down, and trying to say it 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 have the words come from my heart and also have, you know, really mean what I'm saying.

[melodic ambient music begins playing in the background]

[Repeats phrase in Gwich’in - How we live as Gwich’in is very good]

[Speaks another line in Gwich’in - And then we ate that caribou and we knew it]

[Speaks another phrase in Gwich’in - And then again, that caribou knew us]

[melodic ambient music continues]

[00:18:49] Kavita: 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.

[00:19:20] Princess: The reason why I really wanted the film to be in Gwich'in is, well, one, why not? [laughs] 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 clip plays, we hear a woman speaking in Gwich’in greeting her grandson]

[Translation: Hello, my grandson, what you doing? Heh? Ha’ah! Meat! Thank you. Good. Thank you!]

[00:19:56] Princess: 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 clip plays, we hear a man speaking Gwich’in, telling this story]

[Translation: 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.]

[00:20:25] Kavita: If you spend time around children of a certain age, you may already be familiar with some of Princess' work.

[video clip of “Molly of Denali” intro music plays in the background]

[00:20:34] Kavita: “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 as a creative producer on Molly.

[Molly of Denali continues playing in the background]

[00:20:49] Princess: 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.

[00:21:26] Kavita: 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 off to boarding school as a child, where he was forbidden to sing in his own language.

[Video clip plays from “Molly of Denali”] Narrator: Your grandfather, he did not like that. He was proud of his family, he loved our traditions. So, your grandpa, he said: “If I can't sing our songs, I just won't sing anymore. Ever.” A lot of kids did the same. That's why so many of us stopped using our language and singing our songs. [clip ends]

[00:22:14] Kavita: Molly's grandpa does sing again, when Molly finds his drum and sings this song.

[video clip of “Molly of Denali” plays and we hear Molly singing and playing the drum with Grandpa]

[video clip continues in the background]

[00:22:23] Kavita: It was composed by Princess and her colleague, Dewey Kk'ołeyo Hoffman. They wrote it to honor all who survived boarding schools.

[Molly Of Denali clip continues to play with Grandpa singing in Gwich’in and drumming and Molly joining him and everyone cheering joyfully at the end]

[00:22:50] Jessica: Whoa, what a gorgeous and powerful story! Princess is incredibly inspiring, and I can see why she is your language hero!

[00:23:02] Kavita: Yes!

[00:23:03] Jessica: I'm gonna say that she's mine, too! Kavi, what did you take away from reporting this episode?

[00:23:12] Kavita: 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 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 language.

[00:24:00] Jessica: Mm-hmm, 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.

[00:24:21] Kavita: I agree, you know, she's taking on hard things with joy. And what she's doing has these larger, tangible implications for her 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.

[00:24:58] Jessica: Oh my gosh, this family. That's incredible. Well, Kavi, thank you so much for bringing this really incredible story.

[00:25:08] Kavita: 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.

[Seedcast theme music begins to play and continue in the background]

[00:25:26] Jessica: I hope you enjoyed this peek back into the Seedcast archive!  

This episode was originally released in June 2021, and there are 34 original episodes for you to check out, featuring so many incredible Indigenous Peoples from around the world. And reciprocity is one of the themes we always come back to. Find all the episodes wherever you find your podcasts, or at 

This episode was produced by Kavita Pillay. It was mixed by Sauli Pillay, and edited by Jenny Asarnow. Special thanks to Michel Hurtubise and Patrick Cox for their guidance and support on this episode, and to Adeline Raboff for translations. Learn more about Princess's film and all of the Reciprocity Project films at And check out our archive to hear a Sonic Journey featuring Princess—it invites you to listen deeply to the Gwich'in language.

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous Peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come.

Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at And don't forget Seedcast is now on Instagram. Visit us at @niatero_seedcast.

The executive producer of Seedcast is Tracy Rector. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, and me, Jessica Ramirez; with additional support from Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. Fact checking by Romin Lee Johnson. Nia Tero social media by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Seedcast graphics by Cindy Chischilli. Seedcast theme song is Rooted by Mia Kami.

I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon!

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…