Native language centre planned

July 07, 2005, vol. 33, no. 6
By Susan Jamieson-McLarnon

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To the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations, language and history are one. As fewer and fewer elders speak Kwak'wala, history and its oral traditions are lost.

But there may be a renaissance coming. If Bill Cranmer and Guy Buchholtzer have their way, the U'mista cultural centre at Alert Bay on the B.C. coast will become a leading centre for the study of native heritage languages and cultures.

Chief Cranmer, chair of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations U'mista Cultural Society and Buchholtzer, an anthropologist associated with SFU continuing studies' academy of independent scholars, have been working on this project since 2001 when a cooperation agreement was signed with SFU and the Chief Dan George centre for advanced education.

The proposed Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations centre for language culture (KCLC) has gained wide endorsement, from organizations such as U'mista (which represents all Kwak'wala-speaking people of the coast) the Kwakwaka'wakw Elders Assembly, the Canadian Commission to UNESCO, Maori institutions of New Zealand and renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

“We are losing more and more of our speakers,” says Cranmer. “People of my age are almost the only ones left. The KCLC will play an important part in language revitalization, developing curriculum for the schools and sparking the interest of the younger people to get down and start learning.”

Positive economic impact on the Kwakwaka'wakw and Northern Vancouver Island region is an anticipated additional benefit.

The new centre will gather copies of original documents from libraries and museums, internationally. Kwak'wala speakers and elders will be asked to add their comments on key documents. The KCLC plans to digitize the estimated 30,000 documents, making them available to students and researchers. Standardized translations, a complete bibliography and a cultural dictionary are also planned.

“The anthropological discourse had too often become a long monologue, in which the Kwakwaka'wakw had nothing to say,” notes Buchholtzer. “The Kwakwaka'wakw will re-appropriate the material on their own terms. This is perhaps the beginning of a new anthropology. Kwak'wala is the sophisticated language of a very ancient civilization. We cannot permit it to be lost.“

In May, Cranmer, who chairs the Chiefs committee of the Assembly of First Nations, spoke to the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues on heritage language strategy.

Canada could be doing much more, he says. “During the potlatch prohibition people were not able to gather and pass down their songs, their names and their dances. A lot of our history has been lost. This new centre will get it back for us. “

SFU chancellor Milton Wong provided seed money to develop the KCLC proposal which is now seeking nearly $850,000 from governments and other donors.

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