Stand By Your Words

Andre Cramblit 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  
people speak


MALACHAN INDIAN RESERVE NO. 11 -- A cool air blows under the shifting  
shade of clouds, restoring the deep green of Mount Rossander's old- 
growth cedars.

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  
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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," 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  
Daryl Patterson.

"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  
with it."

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  
"cold inside").

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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