Imagine children playing on a beach, speaking Kwak’wala fluently, effortlessly. Office workers, grocery store clerks and restaurant employees – people going about their business – and a bilingual elementary school with regular instruction delivered primarily in Kwak’wala, where classes in English are offered alongside Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, French and other language options. It’s a bold vision. And it’s one we’re passionately pursuing.
Following generations of colonization and the impacts of residential schools – where children were forbidden to speak Kwak’wala in programs designed to strip them of their Indigenous identities – the urgency of language and cultural revitalization is clear. Only about 75 Kwak’wala speakers remain, and only a handful of those are considered fluent. The COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects the elderly, makes our mandate that much more pressing.
As a former schoolteacher, Nawalakw’s Executive Director K’odi Nelson has witnessed firsthand the transformative power that learning traditional languages can have on Indigenous children. “You have to start with language. Everything else will build from that,” he explains. “They’ll be good at math and English and all that other stuff. But if they’re not feeling good about themselves, they’re not going to be good at any of that. That’s what this project is going to do for our people.” In the next decade, we expect to deliver more than 300,000 hours of language and cultural programming to Kwakwaka’wakw youth.
“It turns out, there’s already an impressive talent pool in this area who are either studying or working to teach our language,” says K’odi. “We realized that with some direction, coordination and financial backing, we can channel this talent and really move the development of our language revitalization program forward more quickly.”
Thanks to targeted support from the Mastercard Foundation, First People’s Cultural Council, and collaboration through University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver Island University (VIU), and the University of Victoria (UVIC) this year Nawalakw hired five language apprentices. Under the direction and tutelage of local elders and academics, they will fully devote themselves to learning, documenting and recording, and immersing others in the Kwak’wala language and culture.