Participants in the weekly Kwakwala language immersion sessions at Fort Rupert Health Centre gather for a photo before the start of last week's meeting.

Kwakwala gets life support

In an effort to preserve a Kwakwala language local educators and social service workers are turning for help to first nations elders.

FORT RUPERT—In an effort to preserve a Kwakwala language “hanging by a slender thread”, local educators and social service workers are turning for help to the experts: first nations elders.

“In a nutshell, our languages are in such a critical state that, if we don’t begin to put more effort into revitalization, it’s estimated that by 2018 they’ll fall off the map,” said Sara Child, program coordinator for Kwakwala teacher training.

Surveys have revealed only a few dozen fluent Kwakwala speakers among members of the North Island’s Kwakwaka’wakw nations, and the majority of those are elders age 75 and above.

With the help of funding from the First Peoples Cultural Foundation, local organizers are embarking on a five-month program to establish a strategic plan to ensure the language doesn’t go to the grave with those elders.

As far as the elders are concerned, the emphasis on language education needs to jump straight to the youngest members of the bands.

“Three-year olds, they absorb everything,” said elder Lucille Brotchie. “That’s a great time to teach them, when they’re learning about everything; they should be learning Kwakwala. But people like me, I’m 60, I can’t learn Kwakwala.

Rita Hunt, one of the “Kwakwala Grannies” who share songs, stories and number games with preschool and kindergarten children, says to succeed, the program must be full immersion.

“It needs to start in the preschool, continue in kindergarten and up to grade three,” said Hunt. “There shouldn’t be any English (in the classroom).”

Language committee coordinator Sandra Sewid will visit each of the Tri-band communities between now and March, starting in Fort Rupert and moving on to Quatsino and Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw before bringing representatives of all three nations together in the hope of formalizing a long-term strategy.

“There’s a lot of work going on among our nations, but everybody’s kind of doing it in isolation,” said Child. “One of the outcomes of the language gathering we had last year was that we need to start collaborating; we need to start building a plan and a strategy to save our language. Because it’s bigger than all of us.”

She said the first step is educating the people how close their language is to extinction. In the meantime, smaller language immersion sessions have been started, one for drop-ins each Wednesday at Fort Rupert Health Centre and another for children Monday evenings at Sacred Wolf Friendship Centre in Port Hardy.

“They’re a small piece of the pie, but we need to start popping these classes up all over the place,” Child said. “One of the things we’ve found working with the elders over the years is that they don’t consider themselves fluent, because they don’t have enough opportunity to speak the language with others. So this gives them the opportunity.”

Last week’s drop-in immersion session drew 14 people, nearly double the turnout from the first session, a week earlier. All speaking must be in Kwakwala — any blurting of English results in a clothespin being affixed to the collar of the offender — but participants may attend simply to listen in if not comfortable with the discussion.

The session is, however, instructional to the novice. Elder Violet Bracic, who speaks fluently, used pantomime and pointing to objects to clearly show what she was saying, and other speakers did the same.

“This immersion, it’s the second week since we started,” said Bracic. “I do think it’s gonna open up; there’s an interest gaining. I’m hoping we can coerce or coax our nieces and nephews.”

Bracic is among a number of local residents, including elders, were recruited beginning in 2010 for a teacher training program run through the University of Victoria. They are expected to be in the vanguard of the teachers taking the language to the people. The imminent opening of a new, band-run school in Fort Rupert could be a catalyst for an immersion program, say the elders.

“If they don’t do (immersion) there, it’s not going to start,” said Hunt. “But you need the backing of the people.”

“Mmm, the community,” Bracic agreed, nodding.

“They’ve got to want it,” Hunt added.