Jack Knox: One woman’s fight to save a language, not just a blanket

Jack Knox mugshot genericIt was from her grandfather that Joye Walkus learned her first words of Kwak’wala.

Colours. Facial features. How to count to 10.

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“I knew the names of the fingers on my hand,” the Port Hardy woman says. (No, they don’t correspond to the English meanings.)

So when Walkus graduated from UVic on Monday, it was with Henry Abel Bell’s Chilkat blanket — more than 300 years old, according to family lore — draped around her shoulders.

The occasion was appropriate: Walkus, 44, was part of the very first cohort to earn a bachelor of education in indigenous language revitalization. That means she can teach the whole K-12 curriculum in Kwak’wala.

Six of those earning that designation Monday come from the Saanich Peninsula. The other 10, including Walkus, studied in Port Hardy, their instructors travelling to them for intensive Friday-Saturday-Sunday classes.

The Kwak’wala part was taught by Joye’s mother, Doreen Walkus. Joye has improved to the point where she sometimes dreams in the language (and hearing her mother grumble “I can’t talk about you behind your back anymore” was the best compliment ever).

Still, Joye envies the way Kwak’wala flows effortlessly out of Doreen’s mouth. “I think I’ll get to be proficient, but my mother is fluent,” she says. “My mother knows words that cannot be used in the context of the modern world.”

That leads to an essential question, though: What’s the point? Why try to preserve — and teach — a dying and arcane language?

The reply: languages offer, and allow us to articulate, other ways of looking at the universe. A culture can’t live without its language.

“What the survival of threatened languages means, perhaps, is the endurance of dozens, hundreds, thousands of subtly different notions of truth,” wrote Canadian author Mark Abley in his book Spoken Here. In B.C., home to 60 per cent of Canada’s native languages, those perspectives are part of a shared heritage that influences who we are.

Yet just four per cent of B.C.’s aboriginal people spoke indigenous languages fluently in 2014. That was down from five per cent in 2010, according to a report done for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a provincial Crown corporation based on the Tsartlip reserve at Brentwood Bay. The drop was not surprising, given that most fluent speakers were over age 65.

The report offered a snapshot:

• Just 165 fluent speakers of Kwak’wala, the language of the Kwakwaka’wakw on the coast and islands of northeastern Vancouver Island, remain.

• On the west side of the Island, only 134 Nuu-chah-nulth are fluent — and the Nuu-chah-nulth dialects are so diverse that some consider them separate, and therefore more fragile, languages.

• The Cowichan Valley’s Hul’q’umi’num’ 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, three dozen speak the language of the K’omoks-Sliammon.

• To the west, around Nitinat Lake, seven are fluent in Ditidaht.

• Just seven are fully comfortable in the five related dialects — Sencoten, Malchosen, Lekwungen, Semiahmoo and T’Sou-ke — found from Sooke to the tip of the Saanich Peninsula.

These declines mask another truth, though. While fluent speakers are fading away, the opposite is true of those who are considered semi-fluent.

More than nine per cent of B.C.’s aboriginal population falls in that category. Close to a third of them are under age 25.

Close to one in 10 aboriginals are actively learning the old languages, whether as children or adults. On Monday, Joye Walkus was excited about the prospect of teaching kids in Kwak’wala in the same manner that other students learn through French immersion.

She took pride in ending her 41Ú2-year university journey with her grandfather’s robe around her shoulders — particularly considering his own history.

Bell, also known as Oodzis’talis, was born on Village Island, the site of one of the darker moments in B.C.’s past. Back in 1921, when the native potlatch was still illegal, a ceremony on the island led to the arrest of 45 participants.

Half of them, including Bell, were jailed. They were freed on the condition they surrender their potlatch paraphernalia — masks, whistles and so on. Bell lost a lot of family possessions then.

He still had the Chilkat blanket, though. It’s a rare treasure, made of wool (probably from a mountain goat) and twisted cedar. Wanting it properly preserved, he turned it over to the Royal B.C. Museum in 1975.

Martha Black, the museum’s curator of ethnology, said the institution was happy to bring it to UVic for Walkus on Monday.

Walkus herself was having a great time while preparing for the graduation ceremony, cracking jokes while getting her hair done and being interviewed in a Mayfair mall salon. Of course, she said, the jokes would be funnier in Kwak’wala.

“Our language is pretty humorous.”

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