As Levi Martin reflects on the Nuu-chah-nulth language, he rejects the notion that it is endangered.
Despite being one of an estimated 10 remaining fluent speakers within his nation, the Tla-o-qui-aht elder describes it as a “language in hiding.”
As a young boy, he absorbed his ancestral tongue during story time on his father’s lap.
Hours would pass by as they sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the tiny village of Opitsaht on Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound, distracted only by the faint hum of a fishing boat drifting by, or a sea lion coming up for air.
Martin can still remember his father’s teachings with precision. But everything changed when he was taken away to Christy Residential School on Meares Island.
Before he left, his father presented him with a bag of medicine that he kept tied around his neck as protection, “because he knew he wasn’t going to be there to look after me,” he said.
Martin arrived at the school not knowing a word of English. On the first day of school, he was strapped across his hands by his supervisor, who called himself a “brother,” for speaking his language. It was the only time that Martin received a beating. It was also one of the last times the then-seven-year-old spoke his language at the school.
When Martin returned home for the summer, he proudly showed off the English he had learned to his parents.
His mother quickly pulled him aside and said that he was not to speak “a white man’s language,” because he “wasn’t a white man.”
Although he continued to speak Nuu-chah-nulth with his family during the summer months, the Catholic Church was eventually victorious in its efforts to shame Martin out of speaking his ancestral tongue.
Once he began high school at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission — nearly 350 kilometres from his family — he stopped speaking the Tla-o-qui-aht dialect altogether.
It’s a story that’s familiar to Nuu-chah-nulth families up and down the West Coast.
For many fluent speakers, their language was something they kept hidden to safeguard their loved ones.
“Because the Catholic Church tried to beat it out of us, my own way of protecting my kids was not to teach them our language,” said Moses Martin, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s elected chief. “I never taught any of them.”
As a result, only 108 fluent speakers remain within the 12 Nuu-chah-nulth nations surveyed in the 2018 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages.
B.C. accounts for about 60 per cent of the First Nations languages in Canada. There are currently 34 Indigenous languages within the province. Of those, three per cent of the reported First Nations population are fluent speakers.
Almost two decades passed before Levi Martin was reintroduced to his language at Round Lake alcohol and drug treatment centre in the Okanagan when he was 36. While participating in a sweat lodge ceremony for the first time, he was stirred by messages from his ancestors. As he sat on the cool earth as heat from the fiery coals flushed through his body, everything his parents taught him in Nuu-chah-nulth as a child started rushing back.
“One of the messages I got said I needed to go back home to work with the people,” Martin said. “To reconnect the people to the land, language and spiritual ceremonies.”
After spending more than half his life suppressing his ancestral teachings, Martin was moved to reawaken their sleeping language.
He spent a year preparing for his move back home after leaving the treatment centre in 1981. In Opitsaht, Martin began working with elders in his community to create audio recordings of songs as a teaching tool.
“Language is a connection that we have to our ancestors,” he said. “It comes from the ancestors and we’ve held onto it. Now, we’ve got to pass it on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Sonya Bird is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria whose research focuses on pronunciation in the context of Indigenous language revitalization. While B.C. is incredibly rich in terms of linguistic diversity, she said we are at a “critical time” to create audio recordings and written documents.
“Many of the languages are spoken as first languages by a very small handful of elders and those elders are passing on,” she said. “If language-revitalization efforts don’t happen now, within the next decade or two, we’ll have lost a lot of those elders and knowledge keepers.”
In 2003, FirstVoices was developed by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council to help Indigenous people engage in language archiving, teaching and cultural revitalization. The web-based tools allow nations to create their own language sites by uploading words, phrases, songs and stories as audio and video files. Now, 32 out of the 34 First Nation languages in B.C. can be found on the platform.
“It’s simply imperative to reconciliation in our country that we provide resources and opportunities for [First Nations communities] to have self-determined language projects,” said Kyra Fortier, language technology programs co-ordinator for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.
Ehattesaht, Nuchatlaht, Hesquiaht, Tseshaht, Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations have all created language sites for their own dialects on FirstVoices. The council ensures communities maintain ownership and management of the resources they place on their sites.
The shift from what were traditionally oral languages to documented ones through audio and video recordings has only recently been more widely adopted.
The work was started by pioneers and missionaries, whose goal in taking down linguistic information was to translate religious texts, ultimately as a tool of colonization, Fortier said.
While that documentation has formed the foundation of a lot of language-revitalization resources, Bird said it’s important that the work is now being led by the communities themselves.
Examples of self-determined language programs can be found throughout many Nuu-chah-nulth nations.
As part of the Hesquiaht Language Program, a handwritten dictionary by Reverend Auguste Joseph Brabrant in 1911 was transcribed into the nuučaan̓uł phonetic alphabet by the late Larry Paul, Angela Galligos and Layla Rorick.
Rorick, who co-ordinates Hesquiaht’s language program, said Brabrant wrote the dictionary so someone could replace him as a missionary in Hesquiaht.
“He asked different elders in the community to confirm meanings and didn’t credit anybody — that continues today,” she said. “We understand that we know what we know because we are in relationship and connection with everybody in our community.”
Rorick has been meeting with nine of the nation’s 12 fluent elders every week since 2014. In June, they began teaching an online language program that has attracted nearly 100 students from Vancouver Island to California and beyond.
“The language is coming back from the effort of the group,” said Rorick. “Everyone remembers different things and [collectively], they put together a more complete picture of the use of our language. Nobody is bringing the language back themselves as an individual — it’s the whole group. All of our fluent speakers are bringing it back for people.”
Pat Charleson is one of the nine elders involved with the Hesquiaht Language Program. The 90-year-old was hesitant to begin with, feeling apprehensive that younger generations wouldn’t be interested in learning.
“But, by golly, I feel good about it now,” he said. “There’s so many wanting to learn … us elders, we don’t know when we’re going. It could be tomorrow, or next week.”
Charleson hopes Rorick will carry the language forward when he is no longer able to.
“It would be a great legacy for her if she carries it on,” he said. “You lose a language, you lose a culture.”
For Rorick, speaking her ancestral tongue is an act of defiance.
“We’re responding to the damage of colonialism by speaking our language in our homes,” she said. “We’re also creating a whole different environment for our young ones.”
Levi Martin’s granddaughter Gisele tried learning her language for years before getting discouraged and giving up. It wasn’t until 2010 that she earnestly started investing time and energy into studying it. Levi Martin’s language class was what propelled her forward, she said.
Since Levi moved back to the West Coast in 1981, he’s used language as a bridge to help his community connect with their ancestors.
“It gives me a better understanding of our teachings,” he said. “It’s a connection to my ancestors and a connection to the future.”
Through a mentor-apprentice program, Gisele spent 900 hours in language immersion with Martin over three years, which “catapulted” her learning.
“Nuu-chah-nulth is an ecologically based language,” she said. “Our language has come from this place – from the plants, the animals, the sound of the land … it feels like a cosmic spiritual language in the ways that concepts, ideas and sentences are put together. It’s entirely different and beautiful.”
Levi said when he started teaching languages classes in 2000, only five people would complete the 12-week program. Now, the 75-year-old is seeing anywhere from 15 to 20 in a class.
As younger generations tussle with how to make the guttural sounds that form some of the Nuu-chah-nulth words, the language is morphing.
“Like all cultures, languages change over time,” said Levi.
Rorick recognizes the shift, but said it only fuels her desire to carry it forward.
“If we continue our efforts, we will definitely get closer to [where] we want to go,” she said. “Even if it takes more than our lifetime, it’s worthwhile.”