Stand By Your Words
andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Sat Jul 29 00:30:22 UTC 2006
tanding by their words
A native community is doing all it can to rescue a language only 8
MALACHAN INDIAN RESERVE NO. 11 -- A cool air blows under the shifting
shade of clouds, restoring the deep green of Mount Rossander's old-
The ancient forests wrap around Ditidaht village, a native community
of 210 people accessible only by a hazardous two-hour trek that
snakes along logging roads 50 kilometres from the nearest paved road
at Port Alberni, B.C.
The silence that swallows the little reserve can be unnerving,
symbolizing a community that's at risk of losing its own voice.
"I was about 7 when my mother died, and my father died two years
later," said Christine Edgar, an elder who still speaks Ditidaht in
her head, but struggles to get the sounds out of her mouth. "All of a
sudden I no longer heard the language. There was just nobody to talk
* 'a beautiful position' $
The Globe and Mail
It's a familiar story here.
In spite of the Ditidaht's isolation, outside forces have pushed
their language toward extinction. With only eight competent speakers
left, the Ditidaht language is on the verge of vanishing, along with
half of the languages now spoken around the world.
These projections are a concern for Mike Fortescue, a British
linguistics professor who has been living on the reserve for two
weeks to study and fill in gaps for a 500-page Ditidaht and Wakashan
dictionary he's compiling.
"If they lose this, they stand to lose a direct window on their
cultural background," the linguist from the University of Copenhagen
said. "Of course there are languages in B.C. that have already become
extinct, but this is a very endangered language and . . . there is
the chance to revive it."
So the Ditidaht are fighting back.
The survival of their language now hinges, perhaps, on three tiny
bodies crammed together on a couch in the Asaabus daycare. The
giggling children are the first to take part in a Ditidaht language-
immersion program that begins in early childhood.
"Qaatqaat, hiihitakiitl, hi7tap7iq, kakaatqac'ib," recites four-year-
old Krissy Edgar, singing and doing actions to a Ditidaht equivalent
of Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
It has been three years since the band council approved construction
of the $4.2-million Ditidaht Community School to teach students their
language and culture from kindergarten to Grade 12. Previously,
village students were bused out to an English-language school.
Already, the village is astounded by the program's success, Elsie
Jeffrey, the language co-ordinator for the 70 children enrolled in
the school, said.
"We're doing whatever we can to document what's left. We've put out
CDs, DVDs; we're working on digitizing the language on
FirstVoices.ca," she said, referring to a website that holds audio
records for 15 endangered native communities.
"We just have to do what we can because we're endangered."
Five years ago, Ms. Jeffrey would have been perplexed if an elder
greeted her in the native tongue; now she sees children greeting
elders in Ditidaht and teens writing short speeches in a language
that existed only orally before 2002.
Last year, the school produced its first high-school graduate, Selina
Atleo. The 19-year-old now speaks more Ditidaht than her mother and
assists in the daycare language-immersion program.
Elder Mike Thompson, one of four fluent speakers assisting teachers
in the school, said that another bright light shines in 14-year-old
"He's one of the ones who actually wants to learn," Mr. Thompson
said. "He's one of the ones who takes the language and just sticks
At a cultural exchange with a group of visiting Makah students last
year, the quiet, shaggy-haired teenager extended an invitation in a
stirring speech in Ditidaht, then repeated it in English.
In the richly expressive tongue of his ancestors, Daryl implored the
audience to sample his people's food, participate in ceremonial games
and experience his culture. The lengthy address stunned a village
that hadn't heard the voice of its youth at a ceremony in years.
"It was such a proud and emotional time for us," Ms. Jeffrey said.
"When Daryl got up and just let it out -- just incredible. That was
pretty darn cool to see the progress of the kids."
Ms. Jeffrey, who has been learning the language herself for the past
four years, was born on the reserve and raised by a mother who spoke
fluent Ditidaht. Dorothy Shepherd, her mother, never abandoned the
ancestral language, but rarely spoke it to her children. She believed
it was lost.
Only when the band council approved construction of the school did
Ms. Shepherd join the effort to save Ditidaht by becoming one of four
fluent elders to help teachers at the school.
At 8 a.m. on a Monday, as a group of adult learners still rub the
sleep from their eyes, Ms. Shepherd's voice rings clear.
"Remember to pop your 'k,' " she directs. "Baaqiidax7aa7pik."
"Baaqiidax7aa7pik," they repeat. It means, "What are you doing?"
Around the table, the elders discuss the capacity for creating new
words and even reinventing their ancient tongue.
They now have Ditidaht terms for "computer" (a translation of "thing
with a lot of information") and "refrigerator" (a translation of
Above their heads hangs a 53-character Ditidaht alphabet, a reminder
that every student in the room is learning the basics.
Some, like daycare teaching assistants Kelita Sieber and Esther
Edgar, are Ditidaht teachers and students themselves.
During a rehearsal of Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Ms. Sieber
and Ms. Edgar gave a clumsy rendition and laughed as they tripped
over the words.
"Usually it's easier when we do the song with the kids and we can see
them," Ms. Sieber whispered.
Later, while little Krissy sang along in the daycare, the two adults
leading the troupe stumbled but recovered discreetly.
"La7uu," the child requested as the song ended. "Again."
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