The most important artifacts in the Royal B.C. Museum’s newest exhibit — Our Living Languages: First People’s Voices in B.C. — are not objects in glass cases, but spoken words. Preserving those words is as much about the future as it is the past.
Before European settlement, about 300 languages were spoken in North America; 100 of them are now extinct. With 34 distinct languages and 59 dialects, B.C. has more than half of the aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. On Vancouver Island, there are two main linguistic groups, Wakashan and Coast Salish, which are further divided into six separate languages.
Of the Island’s 30,000 natives, only a few hundred still speak an original language fluently, and most of those are senior citizens. The death of a few elders could wipe out a language entirely.
When a language disappears, we lose more than words; we also lose understanding. Language, culture, history and spirituality are bound up together. Each language or dialect represents a different way of seeing and understanding, and some words represent concepts that cannot be translated easily into another language. For that reason, English has never hesitated to borrow words from other languages to express things more clearly or more subtly.
Evidence of the original languages is all around us: Saanich, Sooke, Cowichan, Camosun, Nanaimo, Metchosin — how dull the Island’s place names would be without those linguistic connections.
It’s a minor miracle that those names have survived. The prevailing attitude during the colonial era was one of disdain toward First Nations cultures, although Europeans had no qualms about confiscating aboriginal works of art and other cultural items for their own collections. But worse than the thefts of those artifacts was the stealing of language.
Ottawa deliberately set out to “kill the Indian in the child” — students forced to attend residential schools were ordered to speak English and were punished when they spoke their native tongues. A language cannot thrive if the younger generation does not use it.
The loss of language ranks high among the serious harms inflicted by the residential school system and the official policies of cultural suppression. A cultural item can be crafted; historical artifacts can be preserved or reproduced. But a lost language cannot be retrieved and artifacts lose their meaning without the words and concepts that explain them.
Residential schools took away languages; some Island schools are trying to give them back by offering classes in languages such as Secoten and Hul’qumi’num, helping aboriginal students to strengthen their cultural identity and giving non-aboriginals the opportunity to expand their way of thinking. Teaching it in schools doesn’t mean that it will become widespread, but it will be preserved to some degree. And those who attempt to learn it — aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike — will gain a better understanding of one of the Island’s original cultures. They will learn other ways of seeing and expressing, skills that will go beyond learning one language.
Without intervention, aboriginal languages will continue to dwindle. It takes a certain population knowing a language from birth and using it daily to keep it alive and thriving. There simply aren’t enough native speakers to ensure the survival of every language unless efforts are made to record and teach those languages. The new exhibit brings awareness to the importance of those efforts.
The exhibit at the B.C. Royal Museum is a partnership between museum curators and First Nations cultural leaders who contributed their knowledge and expertise, but this isn’t “their” culture alone, but ours, all of us. We share in its richness; we should share in the responsibility to preserve it.