The Haisla Nation and the First Nations Education Foundation (FNEF) are partnering with Rio Tinto BC Works to create a Haislakala Language Revitalization Program, to preserve and revive the Haisla language.
The Haisla language is composed of two closely related dialects, X̄enaksialak ̓ala and X̄a’islak ̓ala (the latter spelled ‘Haislakala’ in English and pronounced as it looks in its English spelling). The former is the dialect of the Kitlope community of Haisla people, who are now part of the Haisla Nation in Kitamaat Village, and the latter is the dialect of the Kitamaat people.
Both names are used to refer to the Haisla language. Haisla names and words are written in a phonetic alphabet developed to allow the sounds of the Haisla language to be distinguished.
Haisla is one of the Wakashan tongues, related closely to Kwak’wala (previously called Kwakiutl) and Heiltsuk (Bellabella) and more distantly to the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Nitinat, and Makah.
Those running the language revitalization project, along with the Haisla Nation Council, will “record and curate stories, teachings, words and phrases spoken by the community’s fluent elder speakers to create a comprehensive written and spoken digital language archive,” according to the project’s press release.
Over a six-month period, Haisla elders will be recorded speaking in X̄a’islak ̓ala, with the hopes of collecting 12,000 to 17,000 words, which would act as the foundation for development of the program’s curriculum.
Throughout the recording process, elders will also speak about traditional values, morals, and philosophy, to help attempt to “repair the chain of inter-generational transmission of knowledge that was broken over the past centuries through the Indian Act and residential schools,” the press release says.
Haisla Nation Community Cultural Coordinator Teresa Windsor said they decided to move forward with FNEF and with the project because they felt it would be a good route for the Haisla Nation.
“The process is what I really fell in love with. Being able to capture and record words in a rapid manner,” Windsor said. “This process can [also] happen very quickly, and recording all of these words…is a very quick process, as well.”
Windsor said that, while it’s not a process they necessarily want to rush, they do want to do it sooner rather than later, given that fluent X̄a’islak ̓ala speakers are all over the age of 60.
“Not that we want to rush through a process like this, but time is of an essence,” Windsor said. “Over 20 fluent speakers have passed during the duration of my time being in this position. And the population of fluent speakers is ages 61 to, I believe it’s 98 [years old] now.”
Three years ago, when Windsor first stepped into her position, they compiled a list of all the fluent Haisla language speakers in the Village. It was 101 people when she started, but that number is now down to 82.
“That age category of fluent speakers is getting up there in age, and you know, it’s uncertain how much time we have with each of them,” Windsor said. “And…not all of them are able to be teachers, not all of them are willing to share what they know, or there’s emotional trauma around speaking our language because a lot of those people that are fluent grew up in a time they were forbidden to speak our language, and they were punished for speaking our language.”
Windsor said that the majority of elders who are willing to share their knowledge are in their 80s, and they are hoping that, through moving forward with this project, it will encourage other fluent speakers to come forward to help contribute.
“Hopefully, when people start sharing what they know, and realize what they know is of value, not only to this generation, but for generations to come, [we’re] hoping that it also brings about a sense of healing and reconciliation within each individual, themselves,” Windsor said. “Because it is something that you kind of have to work through. I mean, even myself, growing up not knowing my language, it was something that I really battled in my mind…feeling like I was learning and sharing and I didn’t deserve that. And also trying to get rid of the shame that I inherited from trying to learn and speak our language.”
Windsor said there were a lot of people and elders — many who have since passed away — who spent much of their time documenting Haisla language and culture throughout the years, including an entire language dictionary, which means Haisla Nation already had a fairly solid foundation from which to start.
“We’re really fortunate as Haisla people to have what we have documented,” Windsor said. “A lot of this work could not happen without those people who dedicated their time to documenting our culture and language the way they did.”
Windsor has been in contact with other Indigenous communities who are working on language revitalization projects, and many of them have even fewer fluent speakers of their languages left. Wuikinuxv Nation, in Rivers Inlet, for example, who speak a similar dialect to X̄a’islak ̓ala, only have four fluent elders left.
“It’s devastating because, each time we lose a fluent speaker, it’s like a book closing. And it’s like a book closing that we can’t open again,” Windsor said. “So, it’s of extreme significance to try and capture what we have while we have the time and while we have those people here with us still.”
Windsor hopes this project in Haisla Nation can be utilized to help other groups in their dialect family, as well, like Wuikinuxv Nation.
Windsor said that the final program is going to be available on a customized website. Haisla Nation members will have full access to the curriculum, and others outside the community will have varying access levels.
Rio Tinto will be contributing $50,000 to the project to help with its development.
“We are very pleased to partner with the Haisla Nation and the First Nations Education Foundation to preserve the Haisla language,” Rio Tinto BC Works general manager Affonso Bizon said. “This project will make it easier to teach the Haisla language to young pupils in Kitamaat Village, and will make language resources available to Haisla people living outside the community, giving them access to the knowledge contained in traditional ceremonies and oral stories.”
In December 2019, the United Nations declared 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language,” the press release explained.
“Throughout time, there hasn’t been much money dedicated towards the rebuilding or revitalization of languages,” Windsor said. “So the fact that we can pay our elders and our knowledge keepers for their time — and it’s not like all of them want to be paid to do this kind of work — but it’s nice to be able to give them something in return, for, you know, what they’re sharing, and placing a value on it. And, I mean, it’s difficult because what they’re sharing, you can’t really put a dollar sign on that, really, but…it’s really nice to know that we can sort of uplift them, in that sense and hold them up as knowledge keepers because what they have and what they know is very important to us.”