The Morgan and Dool families are part of a growing trend of First Nations families in British Columbia speaking their mother tongues in their homes.
A report undertaken by the First Peoples Cultural Council (FPCC) on the Status of BC First Nations Languages, released last week, indicates that more parents are raising their children at home with their Indigenous language as their first language.
It’s a trend that has CEO Tracey Herbert of the BC-based FPCC excited.
“One of the key indicators of language modality is the language being transmitted in the home,” said Herbert, who credits the growing access adults have to immersion programs for bringing the language into the home. “I think that’s really a key factor, focusing on conversations and speaking the language in our everyday environment instead of a focus on literacy.”
In the past, she contends, too much emphasis was placed on reading and writing Indigenous languages.
FPCC is a First Nations-directed provincial Crown corporation which advocates for increased recognition and support of First Nations languages, arts and heritage. It’s the only such provincial-based organization in the country.
For mothers Cheyenne Morgan Gwa’amuuk and Roxanne (George) Dool it’s important that they make an effort with their children. Both women are adamant they don’t want their children to have to work as hard as they have had to in order to learn their languages.
Gwa’amuuk, who speaks Gitsenimx, says her language is “intrinsically interconnected” with her cultural and land-based knowledge.
“It’s a significant part of your identity. I don’t think we can really separate language and culture,” she said.
Dool understands the importance of keeping her language alive. After all, at one point her great grandmother Ts’áts’elexwót was one of only two fluent language speakers in the community and was strong in Halq’eméylem revitalization. Now there is only one fluent speaker left in the community.
Surprisingly though, as much time as Dool spent with Ts’áts’elexwót growing up, she was never taught the language, only the occasional word.
“I was kind of young when she passed…I remember it being really emotional. As I grew up and I found how language became important, how it is a part of who we are as First Nations people and how much of it we lost, I felt the only way for me to…recognize my grandma and her hard work was to help with language revitalization and to help learn the language,” said Dool.
Neither Gwa’amuuk nor Dool considers herself a fluent language speaker. Even though they are invested in having their children learn their First Nations’ languages, both women point out they need to be deliberate about speaking it in the home and not slipping into English.
Gwa’amuuk speaks Gitsenimx with her children, four-year-old Skiltuu and nine-month-old Mason, when they’re playing together.
“I think play-based language is really important. If you make sure they’re having fun with play, then the language is just there. It’s not like they’re learning language. They’re playing and the language is just there,” she said.
Dool makes her three children—Keanu Ritchie (15), and Brody (5) and Ryder (1) Dool—and her husband Cody Dool tell her two words in Halq’eméylem if they are asking her for anything. They’ve also swapped out English for Halq’eméylem when it comes to saying thank you, please and you’re welcome.
Gwa’amuuk says her partner Lance Williams is a “silent speaker.” (This refers to someone who understands their language but doesn’t yet speak it). But he is picking it up. She figures their household is about 70 per cent Gitsenimx-speaking.
Dool is more conservative, saying her household is “probably not even close” to 50 per cent Halq’eméylem-speaking. She is quick to point out that her children are surpassing the adults with their vocabulary.
“It makes me really happy. It makes me feel motivated to keep learning. It makes me motivated to stay active with language learning. It makes me active to keep studying. It makes me active to keep teaching (them) because it’s not something I’m going to learn, write down and put away. It’s something that’s going to be used for the rest of our life,” she said.
Like Dool, Gwa’amuuk says she will also continue learning.
That desire to learn their languages and promote intergenerational transfer is something both women have seen grow in their communities. It is also a finding supported by the Status of BC First Nations Languages report.
With increased opportunities for both adults and children to learn their languages, the 2022 report notes an increase in numbers since the last report in 2018.
And that increase comes despite four years of turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic and evacuations due to floods and wildfires.
“We pivoted,” said Herbert. “First Nations people are very adaptable and resilient…They were able to come up with the solutions and carry on with the work.”
That work was made easier with increased funding from both the federal and BC governments.
“With that increased funding and support, of course, comes more opportunities and certainly BC First Nation individuals and communities are taking up those opportunities with gusto,” said Herbert.
According to the figures in the report, in 2018 there were two full-time immersion programs and now there are eight such programs offered in seven different languages. There has been an increase of close to 2,000 adult learners ages 20 to 64 since 2018. There were triple as many full immersions for early childhood-aged children in 2022 compared to 2018.
“There’s been a significant increase in the number of language learners, and we interpret that as we’re making progress,” said Herbert.
For the first time ever, the report includes data on 34 actively used languages in BC. FPCC says there is one more language, pentl’ach, which has not been actively used for several decades, which is being revitalized and will make 35 First Nations languages in the province.
For revitalization to continue in a more fulsome way, says Herbert, funding must be long-term and sustainable and right now the level of funding isn’t meeting the needs.
Herbert is encouraged, though, by federal legislation for Indigenous language revitalization and federal and BC legislation to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
She says reports like the one FCPP produces every four years—2022 marks the fourth such report—helps to set a benchmark in order to communicate with funders and to advocate for the work yet to be undertaken.
Indigenous languages are about more than words and communications, she says.
“It strengthens us across the board, our health, our family systems, our governance,” said Herbert.
“The languages come from the land and these languages only exist here. What I’ve heard from people learning the language and from Elders is that the First Nations languages are part of our souls. Our Elders say this is our birthright. I think that people need to understand having our languages, which have thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge, gives us what we need to live really well on the land that we come from.”
Dool says her work with her children is being guided by her great grandmother.
“I think she’d be really proud, and I think she would be really happy,” said Dool.