Five students from the Saanich Peninsula – four from Stelly’s school and one from Bayside school – made a presentation this month at the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, as part of the ‘2019 Year of Indigenous Languages.’
A delegation led by Coreen Child, included youth ambassadors Talia, Kiara, Natalya, Mariah and Roman Child, as well as Dominik Nelson, from the Kwakiutl First Nation. They were supported by six adult Kwakiutl educational leaders.
In an eloquent speech, Kiara said that through their movement, they hoped to demonstrate their Hassay (connection to the breath of their ancestors) and to advocate for Kwak’wala (their language) to be a central part of their lives.
Back in B.C., Kiara describes her motivation to attend. “We went as part of a collective, not just adults, so the youth had a voice too. We all have work to do to revitalize our language and culture.”
The group wore potlatch regalia as they danced and sang, and performed their ‘Ladies dance’, to show the international audience their traditions are still being maintained. The song and dances are hundreds of years old and were passed down through word of mouth and demonstration. Language, culture and ceremony are very important to the Kwakiutl, as they believe they provide an unbroken line of communication to their ancestors. The regalia the students wore, and the button blanket they displayed, are also full of symbols representing a visual history of their people.
The students spoke clearly, in both English and Kwak’wala, despite admitting to nerves once inside the assembly. Afterwards, they met a number of foreign dignitaries including the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who is the first Indigenous premier of his country.
“We’re focusing on bringing the language back. We’re creating resources, starting curriculums and courses to do at home,” said Kiara. “Language is so important as it is a big piece of an individual’s identity.”
To the students, language is not just a tool of immediate communication.
“Kwak’wala is [literally] our language but it not only connects you to the people and land around you, it also connects you with your ancestors who passed their words down before you,” said Natalya.
While the Child family currently reside on the Saanich Peninsula, Kwak’wala-speaking communities are historically from the north of Vancouver Island. In their home territory surrounding Port Hardy, there are pockets of fluent speakers, but the Kwakiutl still struggle against the ill effects of colonialism.
The UN estimates that 40 per cent of the world’s 6,700 languages are under threat, and the teenagers are partially looking to combat this by encouraging their schools and community to write more in Kwak’wala. Mariah has written a book and plans to write another soon.
“We’re the generation to try and turn things around from the residential schools that impacted mass amounts of communities across Canada,” said Natalya quietly.
Kiara agrees. “By writing things down and making records, we’re taking small steps to efficiently help people learn.”