Jack Knox — A silenced tongue: the last Nuchatlaht speaker dies

Back in 2005, when Alban Michael was in hospital with pneumonia, his parents came to him in a dream. They spoke Nuchatlaht, just like when he was a boy on Nootka Island.

Alban’s dreams were, in fact, the only place such a conversation could take place. Of the seven billion people on Earth, the Vancouver Island man was the very last one fluent in his mother tongue.

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It made him sad. “I’m the only one now,” he said, slowly.

And now he’s gone. Alban Michael died in February at age 89.

When Alban appeared in these pages 11 years ago, it was as the personification of the fragility of the Island’s rapidly vanishing native languages, and of the urgency of the race to save — or at least record — them.

We met him as he sat sipping tea in his tidy little house way up in the tiny native settlement of Oclucje — pronounced OO-cloo-gee — a dozen kilometres down a dodgy logging road from Zeballos, which itself is 40 klicks off the Island Highway a couple of hours north of Campbell River.

He could look out the window and stare down Espinosa Inlet to Nootka Island, where he was raised speaking Nuchatlaht. In fact, Alban didn’t learn English until he landed at residential school in Tofino.

His was a now-too-familiar story: An English-only rule was enforced at such institutions, often harshly. “We weren’t supposed to talk native, eh?” Alban said. Call it cultural genocide, or call it a well-meaning belief in the value of forced assimilation, the effect was the same: Whole generations had their own languages driven out of them.

But Alban’s tale ended differently. He retained his Nuchatlaht because it was the only way he could speak to his mother, who had never gone to school, never learned English. “That’s how I held on to the language. I used to talk to my mother. I couldn’t speak English to her.”

It came in handy later when he was gillnetting salmon in Nootka Sound and didn’t want strangers listening when he radioed another boat. “When I wanted to keep a secret, I spoke my language.” After his dad died, though, there was no one else who knew Nuchatlaht. His wife, Rose, spoke a totally different language, Kwak’wala, so English was what the family spoke at home.

Nuchatlaht is a branch of Nuu-chah-nulth, some of whose dialects are so diverse that some consider them separate, and therefore more fragile, languages.

For example, Alban could communicate with those who spoke Kyuquot, Hesquiaht or Mowachaht, but couldn’t understand some others. Just 134 members of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth communities scattered down the west coast of Vancouver Island were fluent in any of the dialects in 2014, according to a report done for the Brentwood Bay-based First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

Nuu-chah-nulth belongs to the Wakashan family of languages. Other Wakashan languages on Vancouver Island are Ditidaht (spoken by seven people around Nitinat Lake) and Kwak’wala. A total of 165 people were fluent in the five dialects of the latter, the language of the Kwakwaka’wakw, or Kwakiutl, who inhabit the inner coast and islands from Campbell River north.

Languages of a second family, Salishan, are found from Sooke to Victoria and all the way up to the Comox Valley.

In 2014, just seven people were fully comfortable in any of the five related Straits Salish dialects — T’Sou-ke, Malchosen, Lekwungen, Sencoten and Semiahmoo — traced from Sooke to the tip of the Saanich Peninsula and over to Tsawwassen and Surrey. (Klallam, which was spoken at Becher Bay, by Metchosin, is a separate language.)

Farther north, Hul’q’umi’num’ — found, with some dialect differences, from Cowichan Bay to Nanoose — is one of three related Coast Salish dialects (the other two are on the Lower Mainland) spoken by a total of 263 people.

Farther north still, three dozen speak the language of the K’omoks-Sliammon, both in the Comox Valley and on the mainland. But Pentlach, heard in the Courtenay area, faded away in the first half of the 20th century.

Some dialects are fairly close to one another, in the manner of Norwegian and Swedish, meaning it was relatively easy for someone from Sooke to talk to someone from Saanich.

Other linguistic gaps are wider. A Hul’q’umi’num’ speaker from Duncan could, with effort, talk to a Sencoten (say sen-CHAW-then) speaker from Saanich in the same way that people from the north of England could once make out the language of Dutch Friesians.

About four per cent of B.C.’s indigenous people are fluent in any of the province’s First Nations languages, according to the 2014 report. Unsurprisingly, most are over age 65.

These declines mask another truth, though. While fluent speakers are fading away, the opposite is true of those who are considered semi-fluent. Their number has shot up to more than 12,000 today from 3,144 in 2010. Close to a third of them are under age 25. Close to one in 10 indigenous people are actively learning their languages, whether as children or adults, says the Cultural Council, a provincial Crown corporation housed on the Tsartlip reserve. Kids on the Saanich Peninsula can attend an immersion program in school.

The council’s FirstVoices online language documentation and teaching resource has archived portions of 23 of B.C.’s 34 indigenous languages and 38 of 61 dialects, though none has been recorded completely. (Alban Michael’s voice can be heard speaking some of the 1,124 words and 612 phrases archived in the part of the database dedicated to the Nuchatlaht and Ehattesaht dialects.)

People who are engaged in the archiving effort speak enthusiastically of not just saving languages but revitalizing them.

That seems like a daunting challenge. It’s a leap to go from archiving a language to incorporating it into everyday life. A Duncan elder once told me that changing accents make it hard for today’s young people to learn Hul’q’umi’num’ — they speak with a hard English “K,” not the thick, back-of-the-throat sound of their grandparents, and have trouble wrapping their mouths around the old sounds.

And without a geographic and population base to cling to, minority languages seldom tread water for more than a generation or two before going under. Chances are, if your grandparents came to B.C. speaking something other than English, you can’t speak their mother tongue.

The question has to be asked: Why fight the tide? The answer: Language is key to retaining culture.

That’s not just important to those within the culture, but to all of us. “What the survival of threatened languages means, perhaps, is the endurance of dozens, hundreds, thousands of subtly different notions of truth,” argued Canadian author Mark Abley in his book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. Lose a language and you lose the nuanced perspectives it contains, the ones that offer a different view of the world.

Back in 2005, Rose Michael watched her husband Alban slowly pick his way toward the beach.

“It sounds really nice when you hear him talking,” she said.

Yes, it did.

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