Ahjechwut, My name is Siemthlut (Michelle Washington). I come from the Tla’amin (Sliammon) Nation. I was the Language Exhibition Manager for content gathering for Our Living Languages, First Nations Voices in BC. I now work in the Learning Department doing cultural programming for this three-year exhibition and other learning initiatives.
This partnership saw the Royal BC Museum design and fabricate interactive and multi-sensory messages from 34 BC First Nations Languages via First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and their wonderful Advisory Committee. Hundreds of cultural experts in communities around the Province gifted their time and knowledge to provide the content that made this exhibition come to life.
Language champions in communities are the story behind this exhibition. They were involved in the development process, collected all of the data, recordings, songs, greetings, audio/visual productions, text and shared hundreds of fascinating and moving stories of language revitalization over generations that shaped the narrative of the exhibition. Something seemingly as simple as the welcome forest greetings at the entrance to the exhibition can take teams of people to collect. Sometimes, one person who knows how to use the recording equipment has to travel to another remote village or the city to record a fluent elder and then bring that recording to someone else to translate the words into the written orthography for dictionaries or other archive technology.
For many of the language families, the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean have been our highway and trade connector for thousands of years. Many more nations were connected by a myriad of rivers, inlets and trade trails through mountain ranges and desert regions. The varied landscape and seasons of our territories have shaped our culture and our language over millennia.
Our language is not just about words, it connects us to our spirituality and everything in our territory. The true meaning of words is lost unless you have people who are rooted in the culture, and teachings to describe the context. Being knowledgeable about the teachings, the people and the land you come from is part of life-long learning. My elders always said that “everyone has a different path to walk, but it is never too late to return to the teachings and to hear the ancestral messages left to us.”
Behind the scenes, one of the main goals of the exhibition was to promote understanding of First Nations cultures and bring attention to the status of language. This was done through consultation with many knowledge keepers with important messages that represented their family, their community and their larger language groups. Key efforts credited for the resurgence of languages throughout the Province include: immersion programs; master apprentice programs; cultural camps; pre-school language nests; Band schools, public school & university programs; individuals in the arts. The list varies from person to person, but the results are starting to multiply: There is an inter-generational resurgence of culture and language witnessed by an increase of more than 3000 semi-fluent speakers since the 2010 Status of Language Report.
Throughout the exhibition development process of creation, balancing authentic representation and multiple perspectives was a critical element. The large variety of local and international audiences of all ages and languages was always top of mind. Would people seeing it for the first time understand the meaning? Would it be engaging and educational enough? I have witnessed the visitors’ experience first hand. People are finding deep and sometimes emotional meaning with different elements of the exhibition. Some local and international visitors have shared that they feel a powerful connection to the loss of their own ancestral languages that allowed them to communicate with their own elderly relatives here and people from their homelands. Some visitor’s own international languages are endangered. This exhibition has brought them back to thinking about what they can do to revitalize them in their own life and make that connection to their past.
Partnerships like this one are about so much more than a signed document to do business; to First Nations people, they are about a social responsibility to each other to create sustainable change for the better. Over the past decade, I have seen our culture being recognized and included in education, health, business, governance, tourism and many other sectors. It is an important shift that has taken far too long. We have a long way to go but, like our languages, it is never too late.
We want to leave the next generation a clear message:
Through all the traumatic changes that our ancestors have faced we are still here, we can make a difference and it is up to us now to take care of their gifts.