An exhibit to preserve language

As a B.C. resident or visitor, do you know you’re standing on First Nations land? And would you recognize a First Nations language if you heard it?

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and the Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM) have partnered to develop an exhibit to showcase B.C.’s First Nations languages. The planning process began on Feb. 21, International Mother Language Day, and also includes a group of First Nations cultural experts.

Among the cultural experts are First Nations language experts, language teachers and learners, artists and filmmakers from across the province, including UVic linguistics assistant professor Peter Jacobs. Jacobs sees new momentum building not only in interest in First Nations languages, but also in language revitalization.

“There is a new generation of young people and others who have been involved for a while now who have taken on the task of bringing the language to the communities. B.C. has an amazing story to tell that way,” he says.

The RBCM’s ethnology curator, Martha Black, says, “It’s really the First Nations who are going to be saying what they want to say about their own languages and cultures.” She adds, “This language exhibit is a terrific opportunity to let people know about the variety of First Nations languages in B.C. and the history of some of the things that happened to those languages under threat.”

There are 32 First Nations languages in B.C., all of which are severely endangered or nearly extinct (or “sleeping”), according to a 2010 FPCC report. Only 5.1 per cent of the population are fluent speakers.

B.C. First Nations languages are rarely used in the home, government, media or for daily communication. Their decline since the 1800s is due to the Canadian government’s severe assimilation policies, the residential school system and social and cultural pressures, among other reasons, says the report.

“I think a lot of people in B.C. don’t realize what’s around them in terms of First Nations culture. I’m hoping some of this will be a bit of a revelation for our visitors,” says Black.

First Nations groups on southern Vancouver Island and parts of the Lower Mainland speak SENĆOŦEN, Malchosen, Lekwungen, Semiahmoo and T’Sou-ke — five dialects linguists call Northern Straits Salish. SENĆOŦEN has the highest number of fluent speakers at 20 people, all over the age of 50. Lewkungen and Malchosen dialects do not have any fluent speakers at the moment and are considered sleeping.

Black hopes the exhibition will include a contemporary look at what First Nations people are currently doing to maintain the surviving languages. “A lot of people have worked hard to make sure they could pass those languages on to their grandchildren. That’s why they’re able to be spoken today,” she says.

Jacobs specializes in indigenous language revitalization and says the loss of a language is more than the loss of a linguistic system.

“It’s also a loss to the community that’s very close to the centre of how people see themselves,” he says. “People who have their own language, when it’s thriving, it’s a better indicator of overall community health. It’s tied to a lot of different aspects really of human existence.”

The exhibition will be built next to the museum’s First Peoples Gallery. While still in planning stages, Black expects it will feature interaction, sound, photographs, videos, films, contemporary artwork and cultural objects.

“One of the challenges we’ll have is to make sure the sound is good. Sound tends to be in the background a lot [in other exhibits]. In this exhibit, we want the sound to be more in the foreground,” says Black.

The FPCC and RBCM have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to work together to promote B.C.’s First Nations cultures and the work of both organizations.

Construction of the exhibit is expected to start in the fall, says Black.

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