UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Autumn 2005,
Volume 26, Number 2

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A woven mat by Stella Johnny, who uses her craft as a way of preserving Salish languages: "Cedar is the tree of life."
By HOLLY PATTISON, BFA '05
Photography by HOLLY PATTISON

Traditions and technology are being brought together to save Salish languages.

Stella Johnny softens thin strips of cedar bark in a sink full of hot water. Crispy when first submerged, the wet wood becomes pliable, like cooked noodles. Johnny slides her 52-year-old fingers down each cinnamon-coloured strip, removing excess water. She thins wider pieces with a vice-like tool clamped to her kitchen counter before weaving the pieces to form small mats and baskets. She remembers the teachings of her elders and the master weaver who mentored her for 20 years. “Cedar is the tree of life,” she says with her gentle voice. “It’s living. There are different practices and rituals when we work with cedar.”

After all of the years perfecting her craft, Johnny’s eager to share her skills with younger members of her community. It’s also a vital link to saving her ancestral language. For her, preserving tradition and preserving language are intertwined.

That’s why she’s part of the Language Revitalization in Vancouver Island Salish Communities: A Multimedia Approach. It’s a five-year research project to revitalize Hul’q’umi’num’ and seN´coten, two Salish languages of southern Vancouver Island.

“The reason there are few fluent speakers is because children learning their language have no one to practice with,” says Lou-Ann Neel of the Kwakwakw’wakw band and UVic coordinator for the project. “Residential schools had an impact on language—most of our adults have been denied language teaching. That’s the missing piece. The key is to balance immersion in classroom setting with tools that can be used at home.”

A vital aspect of the revitalization process involves archiving the knowledge of elders. “Our elders—the ones who know our languages—are leaving us,” says Johnny. “It’s a major concern because language ties into our culture.” But while many in First Nations communities support the idea, others remain hesitant.” Old fears are still there. Some people wonder if we’re exposing too much. We’re still feeling effects of residential school. If you get kicked out of your home, how do you feel? For our people, it’s like that all the time.”

Johnny says the lack of fluent speakers places a particularly heavy workload on ceremonial speakers who perform as many as 16 to 20 longhouse rituals—such as naming and funeral ceremonies. Each one may involve five days of work, and must be delivered with precision. “The words, the way they’re said—it’s life or death to our people. There are only one or two fluent speakers in the Nanaimo to Cowichan area who represent 4,000 to 5,000 people.” This shortage spurred the Speaker DVD Project, which records the rituals so that others can be taught to fill the roles.
From her point of view, UVic linguist Suzanne Urbanczyk, MA '89, feels it’s important to break down the structural properties of language. If language is taken apart and its rules analyzed, it not only creates an archive, it may make it easier to find effective ways of teaching it. Working with elders, Urbanczyk searches for examples of linguistic terms within traditional languages. But it’s difficult. “Translation is a high art form,” she says. “Fluent speakers are the only people who know what the words really mean.”

Neel says the language revitalization project also analyzes what’s been done and determines what might work better. That may range from training more language teachers to giving portable recorders to elders in order to self-document their knowledge. Neel would also like to see young people have the ability to acknowledge each other and be able to pronounce and thank neighbouring tribes in the correct manner.

The initial year of work in the language revitalization project has yielded a First Voices Web page—a comprehensive site with educational games and activities in SENīCOTEN, Hul’q’umi’num’ and 15 other languages. As well, SENīCOTEN has been added to BC Transit’s multilingual bus guide.

The initial year of work in the language revitalization project has yielded a First Voices Web page—a comprehensive site with educational games and activities in seN´coten, Hul’q’umi’num’ and 15 other languages. As well, SEN´COTEN has been added to BC Transit’s multilingual bus guide.

In just over an hour, Stella Johnny has woven her wet bark ribbons into a fringed mat. She slips it under a small teddy bear that wears a miniature woven vest and hat. She sets the bear and mat beside a collection of intricately woven baskets, which she calls contemporary weavings, the kind she can sell to art galleries.

“We’re good at keeping secrets,” she says. “We’ve been hanging onto our secrets so well we’ve almost lost our language. We have to break the cycle and open our mouths. If we understand both worlds we can find a balanced state. It’s about putting worlds together and making it work.”

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