Tracey Herbert is a self-described Secwe̓pemc cowgirl from St̓uxwtéws Bonaparte First Nation and the Chief Executive Officer of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC). Raised by Elders, her gift is that she won’t take no for an answer.
When she joined the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) in 2003, the Crown corporation had a mandate to revitalize First Nations languages, arts and heritage with a staff of five and a small annual budget. It was charged with reversing the effects of a century of policy intended to disrupt the 35 unique First Nations languages spoken in B.C.
Shortly after taking the job, Herbert remembers meeting with a group of Elders. She got talking to an Elder who had her arm in a sling. “I learned that this Elder had a broken collarbone but that she was going back to work right away because there was no one else to teach.”
This reinforced what Herbert already knew, that many First Nation languages are facing threats to their vitality and that it shouldn’t be up to a handful of individuals to keep them alive.
The chance encounter has stuck with Herbert. She has spent the last 20 years promoting a community development approach to language revitalization. “This means it’s not just about grant money,” Herbert explains. “It’s about rebuilding our cultural infrastructure and supporting knowledge keepers to transfer what they know. So they don’t have to carry the whole burden alone.”
This approach is paying off. There are now more than 17,000 active language learners in B.C. – an increase of 20% over the last four years. In addition, language revitalization employs many First Nations people across the province, 80% of whom are women.
Listen to the voices of Eleanor Nooski and Dennis Patrick, two Dakelh language revitalization experts, talk about Indigenous Peoples taking their languages back
To say the Dakelh language is complex would be an understatement. One hundred and forty-nine characters are required to express the sounds, pops, and pauses of the central Dakelh dialect.
Previously referred to as Carrier people, “Dakelh” means the people who travel by water.
Central Dakelh is spoken by 13 communities, including Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en First Nations who are partnering to protect the language and build new fluent speakers.
Dennis Patrick is the language coordinator for Stellat’en Nation. He says that working together with his Nadleh neighbours is natural and knocks down the borders between communities that were established by the Indian Act.
“We are strongly related through blood, marriage, and language. So, we are pulling together all our relatives, all our language champions, because this work takes all of our commitment.”
Eleanor Nooski is Nadleh and a member of the Luksilyoo (Caribou) or “Grand Trunk” clan.
During the Bah’lats ban the clan system went underground explains Nooski, “so Grand Trunk became code for all of us Luksilyoo.”
Eleanor is 68 and comes from a family rich with fluent Dakelh speakers. She stepped into the work of language revitalization following two terms as an elected councillor.
Dakelh is a language of action Nooski explains. Even the name of the Nadleh language program “Nekhunik utsilhchoot means “We are taking our language back, like grabbing and taking it back.”
And the communities are doing it by any, and all, means possible. Language nests have been established to teach kids under five to speak and to bring the language home to their parents. Unlocking the frozen tongues of silent speakers is another strategy that the communities are engaged in.
Patrick says that many Dakelh people know the language but can’t or won’t speak it. Something he says has a lot to do with deeply ingrained stigma and experiences at Indian residential school. The process of working with silent speakers he says is, “like waking up a child that has been asleep for 30-40 years.”
In both communities, many silent speakers are coming forward to brush up on the language in order to keep up with their children and grandchildren who are also learning according to Nooski. “The kids or grandkids come home from school with words and questions, and now grandma feels she needs to keep up.”
Nadleh and Stellat’en have been holding two-hour Zoom sessions for silent speakers.
A cognitive-behavioural specialist joined to help them relax into learning and to break through mental barriers.
Nadleh and Stellako are on the verge of publishing a dictionary. Patrick says this is essential because it captures and explains the language’s complex writing style and syllabics – a language spoken nowhere else in the world. “Once that happens, then we’ll have a universal writing style that explains our language the way we should speak it.”
(he speaks Dakelh)
Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en partner to revitalize dialect.
Nadleh’s Rez-ame street YouTube channel is the creation of Travis Ketlo. The 36-year-old Nadleh member is using technology and social media to capture and hold the attention of young language learners.
Ketlo’s TikTok channel, @reclaiming_our_language also started this year, featuring short and humourous vignettes designed to make common phrases stick. In three short months, the channel has accumulated over 500 followers.
For small communities like Nadleh and Stellat’en it can be very challenging to manage the backend technology, and platform maintenance necessary to put the language online.
Ketlo spends most of his time adding to the treasure chest of words within the FirstVoices site. FirstVoices is a FPCC-hosted website that provides a platform for community language sites. All content is managed by the communities who retain data sovereignty.
The Nadleh-Stella Whut’ enne FirstVoices site now has 1,825 words, and 779 phrases, and the community language teams are working quickly to record and make more language available every day.
The interest that First Nations people have in FPCC’s FirstVoices initiative has a lot to do with shifting demographics.
Over 60% of First Nations people in B.C. now live away from their home community, Tracey Herbert says that FirstVoices is often a gateway into the language for urban First Nations folks. “It can be that initial catalyst where it’s safe, you’re by yourself interacting with the language, and then you get a bit of confidence and maybe sign up for the mentor-apprentice program.”
(our boss told us to resharpen our axe)
Using every tool to promote the language
Herbert says it will take time and investment to build the foundation for the right relations between First Nations in B.C. and the Province. She is optimistic that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People Act (Declaration Act) helps in this regard because it provides guidance to all provincial ministries on how to work with First Nations.
“The Declaration Act is all really new, and nobody has the answers,” reflects Herbert. “I do feel like there is less racism in the day-to-day work and more openness. Back in the day, there was less interest in talking about Indigenous languages.”
This year, for the first time in its 33-year history, and as committed in the Declaration Act Action Plan, FPCC received a permanent lift to its core operational funding from the provincial government. The organization runs more than 17 programs and has a staff of more than 50. In 2022/23, it provided $31 million in grants to communities with funding from more than 13 sources.
Herbert would like to see more investment directly into communities like Nadleh and Stellat’en so that First Nations can self-determine the best way to revitalize languages.
Nooski says that this investment is owed. “Government have taken our language when they sent our ancestors, our family to residential school. And now that they are trying to give back, we’d like to say thank you for that. But it’s something that is owed to us. We’re considered chattels by the Indian Act, we were not considered humans, and a lot of harm has been done to our people. It is, I think, their fiduciary duty to be able to help us retain and regain and revitalize our language.”
The Declaration Act
Herbert has observed a growing appreciation for the role that language, arts and heritage play in First Nations’ self-determination. And with it, a greater understanding by government that “the knowledge that we have as Indigenous People comes from this land – this particular land – and nowhere else in the world. Language is not just about speaking; it contains thousands of years of knowledge that gives you the guidance to live your best life as an Indigenous Person.”
Dennis Patrick agrees, “Our language goes along with the land, it is land-based and touches everything.”
He further says that the code of how to be a good self-sufficient human is embedded in the language and the stories: “When a child is born, there’s a blue flame that connects with his body that creates his soul. When we do a welcoming of a child into this world, we sing a song and bring him into being as a human being as well as a spiritual being. And they invite the family, the relatives and the community. So it becomes a bigger picture of not just the child, but a child that’s part of a family. That’s part of the community that’s part of the Nation. And we express wishes that if he’s to become a hard worker, then there are things that you do slapping with a beaver tail. Or if she’s become a hunter, you do things that gives him the value of a hunter. And that’s done at the time that they’re born. And this child will have the values of our ancestors that when he moves forward into the world, he does it in a healthy and proper way.”
(when a baby is born, they rejoice)