Local First Nations languages explored in new museum exhibit

The words reflect the sound of wind in the trees or waves lapping against the shore and, for those not accustomed to B.C.’s First Nations languages, the syllables are tongue-twisting.

But, next year, visitors to the Royal B.C. Museum will have the chance to hear some of the 34 languages and 61 dialects spoken in the province and, for the brave, there will be an opportunity to learn some of the simpler words.

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The First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the museum are developing an exhibit — to be located outside the First Peoples Gallery — telling the story of B.C.’s languages from an aboriginal perspective.

“My late father, Dave Elliott, would say the language is the voice of the land,” said Tsartlip elder John Elliott, a historian who teaches at Lau, Welnew Tribal School in Central Saanich.

Tribes on southern Vancouver Island and parts of the mainland speak Sencoten and the related dialects of Malchosen, Lekwungen, Semiahmoo, and T’Sou-ke — collectively known by linguists as Northern Straits Salish.

The idea of the exhibit is exciting, Elliott said.

“People around B.C. need to understand about the value and diversity of language,” he said.

Tracey Herbert, executive director of the cultural council, hopes the exhibit will draw on the many talents in First Nations communities.

“It will be a story told by us, not about us,” she said.

“We will be working with communities on how the story can be told. … People will be able to hear languages being spoken and why the languages were disrupted and how there is great reclamation work being done in B.C.”

The aim is to employ fluent speakers and to use First Nations designers and videographers, Herbert said. “There’s a lot of value added.”

The concept of the language exhibit came from a new memorandum of understanding between the museum and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council agreeing to share professional expertise and promote understanding of First Nations cultures.

“The first fruit of this relationship will be a new gallery at RBCM dedicated to First Nations languages, said Jack Lohman, the museum’s CEO.

“The voices of tradition will give us valuable lessons about how to show respect and grounding for a diversity of voices and multiplicity of interpretations of First Nations.”

Although details have yet to be worked out, the aim is to have interactive, multimedia displays, Herbert said.

“It should be a really fun way to explore the languages and the stories.”

Between $500,000 and $750,000 will be needed, and fundraising is starting immediately, Herbert said.

Eight First Nations languages have already gone extinct in B.C. and many others are teetering on the brink, with only 5.1 per cent of the aboriginal population — mostly elders — able to speak their languages fluently.

A 2010 report of the status of B.C. First Nations languages blames the Canadian government’s historical assimilation policies, residential schools, pressure from the dominant English-speaking society and exclusion of First Nations languages from government, commerce, arts, education and media.

One area where efforts to reclaim language are starting to show dividends is on the Saanich Peninsula, largely because of the Lau, Welnew Tribal School.

“We have 200 children in the school, and we are teaching the adult cohort,” Elliott said.

Several younger people from the community are now in their third year at the University of Victoria, studying to be teachers, he said.

“They are getting really fluent.”


Audio: Hear the Sencoten word for hard rain:  http://www.firstvoices.com/en/SENCOTEN/word/1f13909359cb7af5/hard+rain+%28fl

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