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Revitalizing Vancouver Island’s Indigenous languages

Indigenous people from across Vancouver Island are striving to ensure their languages live on through fluent speakers.

This year, CBC Radio’s afternoon show in Victoria has been speaking to some of the many people working to revitalize the Indigenous languages spoken across Vancouver Island and southwestern B.C. Time is of the essence to keep the languages awake, and to use them to rebuild better relationships with the land. To explore the areas where these languages are spoken, click this map from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

A multi-generational project

Many Indigenous people are in a race against time to keep the languages of their ancestors alive.

In some communities in British Columbia, only a few fluent speakers remain. In some cases, those people are “silent speakers” — elders who have knowledge of the language but have not actually spoken it since they were punished for using it as children in residential schools.

Now younger generations are taking up the cause.

Many young people, even those in their 40s and 50s, are learning and teaching their languages at the same time. Their hope is that children who are just starting school now will grow up into a new generation of fluent speakers.

These are the stories of just a few of those people, of all generations, who are working to revitalize Indigenous languages on Vancouver Island.

Tim Masso and Hjalmer Wenstob

Language learner and artist, brothers

Language:  Nuu-chah-nulth

Tim Masso’s focus on language started as he watched his older brother, Hjalmer Wenstob, recover from brain surgery.

Wenstob was studying art at the University of Victoria when an ongoing neurological condition suddenly worsened — fast. He lost feeling in half of his body and was diagnosed with a condition that affects the brain called Chiari malformation, before undergoing life-threatening surgery.

Just weeks later, after he started to learn to read, write and walk again, Wenstob went back to class — this time with eight-year-old Masso by his side to help him navigate the campus. But Wenstob was also struggling with his mental health post-surgery, so the pair went in search of support.

They would visit First Peoples’ House, a centre for Indigenous students on campus. Elders there would brush Wenstob down with cedar boughs, a practice intended to cleanse negative energy.

“Every time they brushed him down with cedar boughs and sang him a song in Coast Salish, I could see the strength that it gave him,” Masso said.

Masso was just a kid when that happened, but it was the beginning of his mission to spread his dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth. Both he and his older brother sat on committees representing their Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, near Tofino, B.C., and advocated to all levels of government for language-revitalization funding.

Now at just 17, Masso is so motivated to teach his language that he’s three years into a bachelor of education degree at the University of Victoria, which offers a specialization in Indigenous language revitalization. He and Wenstob, an artist, are collaborating to add new elements to their culture: they’re writing modern songs in Nuu-chah-nulth so they can dance, sing and celebrate in their own language.

Masso is already teaching Nuu-chah-nulth to youngsters, including Wenstob’s children, Huumiis, 4, and Cinkwa, 2.

“Our four-year-old is now speaking and learning Nuu-chah-nulth from her Uncle Timmy, but also from my wife. She’s learning the language from Timmy and she’s doing it so she can teach our children. And there’s just love of culture and language that we already see in our little ones. And that’s what we want to see,” Wenstob said.

“It’s something that a lot of elders didn’t think would happen.”

Sarah Tom and Pat Patterson

Teachers from the Ditidaht First Nation

Language:  diitiidʔaaʔtx̣

How do you teach something that you’re still trying to learn yourself?

That’s the challenge facing many language teachers in B.C.’s Indigenous communities.

Sarah Tom and Pat Patterson teach diitiidʔaaʔtx̣ at the Ditidaht Community School on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Pat started learning it in 2011; Sarah started in 2017.

The community school offers adult classes as well, with help from some of the seven fluent speakers who remain.

WATCH | Tom teaches the pronunciation and shares the significance of the diitiidʔaaʔtx̣ word ʔu x̣ʷaʔ ƛak

“Unfortunately, residential school did its job and took the language from [our parents],” said Patterson.

“What’s frustrating for me is, we’re trying to teach our language and it’s not natural, because they should have been learning this at home and from the beginning. So that makes it extra challenging. Seeing even some of the older kids, they have a hard time.”

Tom says their goal is to make it normal for their students to speak and hear diitiidʔaaʔtx̣ everywhere in the community.

Patterson predicts only the youngest children learning the language today will truly reach fluency. The hope is that they will be able to start growing and evolving the language again — something that didn’t happen for generations because of the gap created by residential schools.

Dolly Sylvester

District elder and knowledge keeper, Cowichan Valley School District

Language:  Hul’q’umi’num

In Dolly Sylvester’s family, three generations of women are working to keep their coastal language afloat.

Sylvester, a Cowichan elder and a fluent Hul’q’umi’num speaker, is the district elder and knowledge keeper for the Cowichan Valley School District on southern Vancouver Island. She’s been working as a language teacher for decades, but for some generations — including her daughter’s — the language just wasn’t sticking.

Now she says she’s seeing a change. While her adult daughter is now learning the language, it’s Sylvester’s four-year-old granddaughter who’s picking it up the quickest. She joins in on some of the community language classes Sylvester teaches on Zoom, and Sylvester speaks to her in their language.

“She tries to talk to her mom in Hul’q’umi’num.… Like today, she was telling her mom, ‘You’re supposed to say ‘Uy’ skweyu, [good day]’ you know. It’s a really good day!'”

WATCH | Sylvester teaches the Hul’q’umi’num word xe’xe’ – smun’eem, which translates as “sacred children,”.

How revitalization is key to reconnecting with the land

Many Indigenous people will tell you that language and culture go hand in hand; that you can’t strengthen one without knowing the other, and that both are rooted in the land.

For Indigenous language learners, new words can open windows to the world around them.

They say English just doesn’t allow you to feel — and be — in the landscape like their languages do. And that once they have that connection, they can better manage and protect the environment.

Without it, they fear the land, the sea, and the creatures that live in both, will be lost.

Ted Cadwallader

Director of instruction, Indigenous learning, at Nanaimo and Ladysmith public schools

Language:  Hul’q’umi’num

Ted Cadwallader thinks Indigenous languages could save the land. It’s the work B.C. school districts are doing to revitalize them that gives him hope.

“I think that embedded in Indigenous languages is a different way of understanding the world. And I think there’s a potential there to save us, to give us a different way of living on this territory,” he said.

Cadwallader is Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, from northern Vancouver Island, but has spent most of his life and career working in Indigenous education in the school system, primarily in the central part of Vancouver Island, where Hul’q’umi’num is spoken. While English is noun-based (and therefore focused on things), Hul’q’umi’num is action- and relationship-based, he said.

For example, the word for huckleberry is sqw’uqwtsus. That doesn’t actually translate to huckleberry, he said, but rather “the motion your fingers do when they work together to pick the huckleberries.”

The suffix “tsus” means “together.” You also see it at the end of qwum’xwtsus, the word for “wrist,” which translates as “the motion your wrist makes when you put your arms around someone’s shoulder.”

WATCH | Cadwallader explains the significance of the Hul’q’umi’num phrase Qwam qwum tun shqwalawun

Cadwallader calls learnings like that “little gifts.”

“If I could only speak Hul’q’umi’num, I would see the world in a relationship way, and I would be in relationship with everything else, and I would be action-oriented,” he said. “I wouldn’t be paying too much attention to things; I would be paying attention to my relationship to things and the way we live.”

Jesse Recalma

Artist, Hul’q’umi’num teacher, revitalizer of Pentlatch

Language:  Pentlatch

Pentlatch is what’s known as a “sleeping language.” It’s been 80 years since anyone spoke it fluently. Jesse Recalma is one of the people trying to change that.

A member of the Qualicum First Nation, located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, he says finding resources to help reawaken Pentlatch has been a problem.

There are no recordings of the language, so people can’t relearn it by ear. Instead, language learners are using written documents and similarities in other languages to figure out how to pronounce words and form new ones.

“A lot of it is guesswork,” said Recalma. “Hopefully good guessing.”

WATCH | The importance of the Pentlach phrase Waylap ‘ula ço ct kunamut.

As a north Salish language, Pentlach is closely related to neighbouring languages such as Ayajuthum and Hul’q’umi’num. When Recalma and his fellow language revitalizers — Qualicum First Nation Chief Councillor Michael Recalma, community members including Mathew Andreatta, and linguists who specialize in Salish languages — can’t quite figure out what a word would be, they use those other languages for reference. But it’s not the same as hearing it from a fluent speaker in your community.

Recalma speaks Hul’q’umi’num too, but he says it’s vital to revive Pentlatch.

“Language and culture go hand in hand, so people often assume that if the language is extinct, so are the people,” said Recalma. “But there are a number of people with Pentlatch lineage who definitely are not extinct, because I’ve seen them and happen to be one of them.”

Recalma says knowing and speaking the language helps connect him to the land and resources. And knowing the words for the flora and the fauna improves his daily life.

“Because we have so many different trees, we often get the thing stuck in our head that cedar, being the tree of life, is the most important tree … but we have to remember that all trees are sacred and all trees are important,” he said.

The Pentlach word for maple (qumul’ulhp, according to Recalma) translates to “paddle tree,” which helps him remember that he has a relationship with the land.

Once you remember that, he says, it changes the way you look at everything. “Looking at something like a deer, and thinking ‘Oh yeah, that’s going to [be] burger meat and steaks and roast, and I’m going to use this shoulder blade as a cleaning knife,’” he said.

“It’s not like going to Walmart and shopping for stuff. You’re thinking, ‘I want this deer’ or ‘I really need this tree for a purpose.’ But you’re going to be mindful of how many you take, or what time of year you take it.”

Koosen (Devin Pielle)

Co-host of Poho Conspiracy on Raven FM in Campbell River, B.C., language teacher in qathet Regional District

Language:  Ayajuthum

Koosen says she is lucky. She grew up in a tight-knit family in which Ayajuthum was spoken and Tla’amin culture was practised.

Now she’s busy teaching it to her children, to young students, and to community members through a radio show.

She says it’s vital to preserve the culture.

“When you’re relearning the language, you’re learning a different way to view the world,” she said.

For starters, said Koosen, the language is shaped by the landscape. She said she often thinks about how distinct Canada’s Indigenous languages are — and she knows that comes from the geographic diversity of the land.

“Think about how different Cree is compared to Ayajuthum. It’s because their land is flat,” she said. “You know, the sounds bounce off differently there in their atmosphere. Same with here, where our geography is so huge. And the huge mountains and the ocean, it affects the way our language sounds.”

For Koosen, the link to landscape is clear when you learn the word ǰɛǰɛ (pronounced “dzah-dzah”). It’s the word for relatives, as well as the word for trees.

“The trees are our relatives,” said Koosen.

This connection, coupled with the belief that everything has a spirit, means that Indigenous language speakers are inherently going to treat the land and its resources differently than members of Western society, she said.

Deanna Nicolson

Language programs director at Nawalakw Culture Project and member of Indigenous education team at the University of Victoria

Language:  Kwaḱwala

Learning a language in a classroom doesn’t always translate to using it in real life — and the folks at the Nawalakw Culture Project are trying to change that.

The project is a lodge built on Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw territory, up an inlet along B.C.’s Central Coast, two hours by boat from the nearest Vancouver Island town. It will be an ecotourism location, but also a place for culture and healing, where Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples will be able to learn their language, Kwak̓wala.

Nawalakw means “spiritual” in Kwak̓wala.

“It’s in our territory, and it’s on our land, and it will be by our people and for our people,” said Deanna Nicolson, who is Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw and whose traditional name is Ikawegi’lakw.

There is language revitalization work going on in the northern Vancouver Island communities where Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw live — such as Campbell River, Alert Bay and Port McNeill — but those communities aren’t always on traditional territory.

“Bringing our learners into their territory is going to open up a huge other range of useful and meaningful language for them to learn and then communicate,” said Nicolson.

WATCH | Nicolson teaches the Kwak̓wala word Kwak̓walala’s

The project’s goal is not to just revitalize the language, but to be a place — the first place — where Kwak̓wala is spoken fluently by community members of all ages.

“I’ve always been passionate about learning and sharing our ancestral language. And sometimes, because it’s a very hard task, … you might feel like you don’t have any support at all. Or maybe you just have one person helping you,” Nicolson said.

“It absolutely means the world to see this growth and this interest to ensure that Kwak̓wala remains a spoken language.”

Thank you to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council for sharing their knowledge of B.C.’s Indigenous languages for these stories. Check out their interactive map and First Voices project to learn about languages across B.C.

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