Saving the Haida language through immersion – and just in time

This post, written by Melanie Jackson of the British Columbia School Trustees’ Association, is an excerpt from “The Way Forward is the Way Back: Saving the Haida Language.

When Haida Gwaii Trustee Wayne Wilson was a boy, his parents spoke their native Haida only when they didn’t want him to know what they were saying. Canadian society frowned on using the language as part of everyday life.

Wayne’s dad learned this the hard way, as a student at the Coqualeetza Residential School near Chilliwack. Any student who spoke Haida got punished.

In fact, it used to be that society discouraged any form of Haida culture at all. Until 1951 in Canada, even potlatches were illegal.

Fast-forward to 2011. When the Haida Gwaii community holds potlatches, or gift-giving feasts, more than 1,000 people jam the local rec centre. “And the total population of Haida Gwaii is only 5,000!” exclaims Wayne. “The enthusiasm for joining in potlatches and other customs keeps on growing. The rec centre is getting too small to hold us.”

The community’s will to preserve and celebrate Haida culture, including language, is alive and well. The problem is, after all those years of discouragement, only about 50 people still speak Haida. Most are in their 80s and 90s. In seeking to revive the language, Wayne and other Haida face a steep challenge.

Steep – but not insurmountable, says the Haida Gwaii board chair. This fall, the Haida Gwaii School District has launched partial Haida immersion programs in two elementary schools.

Teachers will work alongside elders to get Kindergarteners thinking and speaking in Haida. At that age, children are impressionable – they’re at the perfect age for picking things up quickly. It’s also an ideal time in that Kindergarten and Grade 1 are play-based, with dance, singing and art. There’s a lot of opportunity for communicating. There is also storytelling by the elders.

The full article is published in BCSTA’s October issue of Education Leader.