William ‘Wa’ Wasden

Kwakwala song rings in season

Wagalus students sing out a Christmas classic with a twist.

PORT HARDY—Listeners of The Port 1240AM Wednesday morning may not have recognized the words, but the Christmas song — and the enthusiasm of the singers — was unmistakable.

A group of 16 students from Wagalus School in Fort Rupert descended on the radio station Tuesday afternoon and recorded their version of Jingle Bells. What made the song unique is that is was sung entirely in Kwakwala, the native language of the Kwakiutl and other Kwakwaka’wakw peoples.

“We’re here to encourage the language revitalization that’s been brought to our communities by the language champions, by the elders who are still with us, speaking the language,” said Davida Hunt, daughter of longtime language teacher Mary Hunt. “The children of Wagalus School have a real good sense of belonging to the community and a connection to the land, through language.

The children were taught the song and directed by hereditary chief William “Wa” Wasden, who stepped in to help with language education this year after Mary Hunt retired at age 77.

“They like to sing,” said Wasden. “They’d rather sing than just talk language.”

The song and an interview with Davida Hunt were recorded Dec. 17 and aired the following morning. It was part of a larger series of performances by the children, including one Dec. 16 during the band’s Christmas dinner and another, by preschoolers, Dec. 18.

“The children have such a good, positive feeling when they’re singing in Kwakwala,” said Hunt. “Last night at the Kwakiutl Band dinner you could feel the whole room lift up with the singing of this song.”

Hunt told program host Cody Malbeuf the students were taught the most literal translation of Jingle Bells from English, adding a degree of to the instruction. And they learned the long version.

“FYI, not a lot of people sing the verses like they did,” said Wasden. “Most people just sing the chorus.”

Hunt is one of several local students in an aboriginal language revitalization program run through the University of Victoria. The introduction of Kwakwala to elementary and preschool-aged children is an effort by the “language champions” to stave off extinction of the language with the passing of the few elders left who speak fluently.

A five-month language revitalization planning program was kicked off in Fort Rupert last month, and will include events in the new year on the Quatsino and Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw reserves.

Program coordinator said last week’s performance by the Wagalus students was a tribute to Mary Hunt, who has championed the preservation of the Kwakwala language for decades. New warriors, like her daughter and like Wasden, are picking up that mantle.