Photos and text by F. Ian Gilchrist

People who come from one place to another, often take with them a baggage of culture, religion and language. This sometimes leaves them blind too, to the fresh, and often better, things in their new place.

For example, when I came to Yellowknife, like most everybody else “from away,” I thought the Aurora borealis, or northern lights, were pretty great. And for the next few years I stumbled along using those mouthfulls of syllables to describe what I was seeing. Then the Tlicho Yatii Enihtl’è, a Tlicho language dictionary, came out and I found a much more practical word, naka, to name this beautiful phenomenon in the sky. After all, the English (calling them the northern lights), or the Romans and French (calling them the Aurora-e boreale-is) really probably never became so familiar — where they lived — with these things, as the Dene and Inuit are, and so had no short word to take with them when they became colonizers. But from the time that I made the discovery of the Tlicho word, my diaries and notes, and my thinking, register now just the four entirely adequate letters naka, replacing the tedious 13 or 14 that I had to wrestle with before.

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And sometimes, when we don’t recognize that we are in a different place, maybe we continue something like a language arrogance, failing often to realize how much richer the words of the ancestral people are for the new environment to which we have come.

So it was also with another beauty that I discovered in our Yellowknife environment a few years ago — the incredibly varied patterns of frost occurring on the greenhouse windows of our house. To me they were just frost, but for the rich language of the Tlicho, again revealed by the Tlicho Yatii Enithl’è, they were more, because in their vocabulary there is ordinary frost (nahzoo), frost on the land (gok’eèzoh), and these pictures which are of edzak’eèzoo (frost on glass). To look and listen is to find new beauty wherever we are.


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