On my first visit to the Our Living Languages exhibition, I was curious to see how the Royal BC Museum and Archives would tell the stories of the languages that are Indigenous to these lands. As a professor of Indigenous education I have the privilege of teaching in programs with people who are revitalizing their endangered languages and working to develop new generations of speakers who are able to teach their languages in their communities. I am from the Kwaguł Nation and am an adult language learner of my mother’s first language, Kwak’wala. Like other Indigenous languages, the generational transmission of Kwak’wala has been disrupted. My late mother was born into a time when Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language in school. I am now working hard to recover Kwak’wala in my own life. Because of my passion for Indigenous language revitalization, both personally and professionally, I have a special interest in the languages exhibition.
On my first visit to the exhibition I entered through the ‘language forest’, stopping to listen to each of the distinct languages that live in the territories now known as British Columbia. Each time I visit the exhibition I enjoy hearing the greetings in the languages of the people with whom I have worked and the territories I have visited. Every one of the Indigenous languages in BC is considered to be endangered, and to hear them spoken is a reminder of the rich linguistic diversity that communities are working hard to sustain and revitalize.
Passing through the welcoming forest in the gallery space, my attention was drawn to a beaded hat on display across the room. I was drawn to the beauty and design of the beadwork. I come from a rich tradition of Kwaguł buttons blankets and cedar bark regalia and while I have never really thought of beading as a Kwaguł art form, I have had a growing fascination with beadwork. In my recent work with languages in the north, I was introduced to beading.
One of the most effective ways I know to teach and learn languages is through natural, communicative and hands-on approaches. While participating in a Tahltan language immersion camp last summer, students led us through a beading lesson and gave all instruction in the Tahltan language. Living languages are actively used, grow and change, and are present in day-to-day life and relationships. We experienced the life of Tahltan language as our hands worked with the beads, threads and fabric. The simple beaded piece I created that day gave me a deeper appreciation for the intricate designs I have seen stitched to bags, mitts and moccasins. I wondered if I might learn to bead well enough to stitch a design onto my tsep—my dance apron.
As I approached the beaded hat on display in the languages exhibition I was surprised to see that it was labeled tła̱ta̱mł, the kwak’wala word for hat. While Kwaguł regalia is sometimes adorned with beads, I had never seen a Kwaguł piece similar to this fully beaded hat. I read further and was even more surprised to see that the hat is attributed to my great-great-great grandmother, Anisalaga. Anislagala, the daughter of a Tłingit chief, came to the Kwaguł village T’sax̱is with her husband Robert Hunt, a trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company. I grew up hearing stories about Anisalaga’s skill as a Chilkat weaver but this was my first introduction her beadwork. This hat, created with tiny glass beads, became even more beautiful to me as I realized my ancestral connections with the piece. I do not know if I could ever develop strong enough beading skills to recreate a tła̱ta̱mł in this style, but I am so attracted to the piece that I’ve visited it many times. I’ve photographed it and shared the pictures with other decedents of Anisalaga, and I have talked with beaders about how I might replicate the work.
It is this kind of connection with our ancestors that draws me to recover Kwak’wala in my life. To speak the language of my ancestors, the language that comes from our traditional territories, gives me a sense of place in our world and teaches me about what it means to be Kwaguł. The work that Indigenous communities are doing to revitalize and maintain their languages as living languages is driven by the desire to sustain the ancestral knowledge and teachings represented in those languages. And, for some of us, the languages become even more beautiful when we recognize in them, our connections to the voices of our ancestors.