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MONTREAL—Kathy Robinson is a language warrior. At the age of 81, she is one of the last two fluent native speakers of Tseshaht (pronounced “tsi-sha-aht”), a language once popularly spoken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Tseshaht is not the only language indigenous to Canada that is at risk of disappearing.
Of the 50 Indigenous tongues in Canada, most are in danger of extinction. Globally, the last speaker of a language dies every two weeks. There are at least 2,500 endangered languages and dialects destined for extinction in the next 100 years, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
“This all happened because of residential schools; we’ve almost lost everything,” said Elder Robinson when asked why her language is disappearing. “We’ve pretty well lost our language, except for a few that kept it.”
Elder Robinson said the residential school system played a huge role in diminishing the number of speakers of Native languages because Indigenous children were forced to speak English. Now, Robinson is fighting to keep her Native language alive.
“I’d just like to leave behind what I know, so the next generation will know this,” said Robinson, who is a mother of 10 daughters.
The Tseshaht people are one of 14 Nations that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
Robinson has devoted the last 33 years of her life to creating language materials for the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. Learning from her elders, she developed the foundations of the Tseshaht curriculum that is still used at the local Tseshaht community school. The school is called Haahuupayak, which means “a tool (yak) for teaching with love (haa huu pa)."
Over the decades, Robinson has revived dances, songs and stories for her community's children that are based on her early memories and on ethnographic interviews found in linguist Edward Sapir’s notes, which she has spent 15 years translating and analyzing.
Two of her daughters, Jessica Stephens and Katherine Robinson, are also involved in language revitalization. Jessica is a member of he First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council (FPHLCC), which developed FirstVoices.com, an online language documentation and education resource.
“[My mother] brought along all her old memories to the children and teachers,” Stephens explains. Her mother started by translating simple objects from English to Nuu-chah-nulth. She then got excited about puppets, which led to translating all the English nursery rhymes, colours, numbers, animals and “everything on earth” into her language.
“There wasn’t any real money back then for a First Nations curriculum. My mother and her co-worker worked long, hard and cold hours to get this done,” Stephens said. “They worked for peanuts but their commitment and passion forged them on.”
Today, First Nations languages are taking on new forms. The FirstVoices team in British Columbia, of which Elder Robinson’s daughter Katherine is part, provides online tools to enable First Nations communities to preserve their Indigenous languages in digital form. New media tools now provide a new pathway for transmitting and conserving oral cultures threatened by extinction.
Soon First Nations people will be able to send text messages to each other in Indigenous languages—thanks to an innovative mobile application that FirstVoices will launch on April 22. It will be available in BC’s 34 languages, which include 60 dialects.
The new texting application, called FirstVoices Chat, is generating a huge buzz among First Nations youth.
“Access to the applications on mobile devices has really sparked an interest in youth to get involved with language. They are going to be able to text everyday in their own language,” said Peter Brand, FirstVoices Co-ordinator.
FirstVoices Chat is one of several new mobile apps that provide multimedia First Nations dictionaries and phrase collections with audio recordings, images and video. The apps are a mobile extension of language collections archived by First Nations communities at FirstVoices.com. They incorporate touch-screen keyboards that use the unique characters for each of the 34 Indigenous languages of BC, as well as an English keyboard.
FirstVoices also runs a language program called The Language Tutor, which has been implemented in several schools in BC. The software offers computer-based language learning courses that are tailored for specific First Nations cultures. Parents have used it in collaboration with local teachers to create successful language immersion environments in several communities.
"It's very exciting to see the new generation of language champions emerging right in front of us," said Peter Brand.
Jessica Stephens said her mother recognizes how essential computers are for revitalizing their language and developing new materials, but that taking computer courses brought up a lot of her mother’s fears from her experience in residential school.
“Her fear was up and she was resistant, but she had to go if she wanted her language to have a chance,” Stephens said. “So she overcame her fear and learned.”
“She liked it and was confused by it, but she kept typing and today she is an efficient computer geek,” Stephens added. “My mom is always on the computer translating the stories. She remembers the people who she is translating. She knows them and has talked to them so it is like she is the link. She loves, absolutely loves translating their notes.”
Elder Robinson is celebrated in her community for having contributed so much of her energy to create a Tseshaht dictionary, books of traditional mythology, collections of song lyrics and children’s stories.
Michael Kelly, a member of the Elders Team from the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, shares Robinson’s belief that residential schools and other historic assimilatory practices are the root cause of the demise of many Indigenous languages.
“When I came back from six years at residential school, I was like a stranger in my own family,” Kelly said.
For Kelly, six years was long enough to lose everything he once had.
“I used to be able to understand our language as a child,” he said. “When my mother died, when I was nine years old, I went to residential school and I was forbidden to speak it; I was a heathen if I spoke it.”
Kelly, along with 22 other elders from different communities in BC, are currently taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s events scheduled in First Nations communities throughout 2012.
Kelly, in an interview in the city of Port Alberni, Vancouver Island, affirmed that the first step towards Indigenous language revitalization in Canada is the healing among the elders who survived residential schools.
“They come in with a lot of anger and guilt,” said Kelly of many First Nations elders. “'Why did I let this happen to me when I was so young?' They’ll blame themselves, and the priests and brothers and prefects, who taught us how to be guilty and think we are not worth anything, and that we are nothing more than drunken Indians.”
But that anger and guilt might be somewhat relieved for those sharing their stories—often for the first time—and by having their voices heard and their experiences validated, Kelly said.
“The pain does not go away,” said Kelly. “The healing is really important so they don’t have to walk around with their heads hanging down, not trusting people, afraid of who they are.”
Stephens affirmed that although healing is important for the elders, it is not an easy process.
“Spiritual healing can only take place when the elders are ready for it. It is a romantic thought that we open this healing door and they all walk in. Life is not like that. Some will never walk in, others will peek in, while still others will take a quick glance, feel too much fear, pain and shame and run far away. The severely wounded can’t even go near the door. Some people wish that we could just heal ourselves quickly and maybe it would go away and they wouldn’t have to hear it again.”
Anna Luisa Daigneault is an anthropologist and language activist from Montreal. She currently works for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the US and is involved with several language revitalization projects in Peru, Paraguay and Chile.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.