$900,000 Program to Revitalize Island Aboriginal Languages

University and First Nations communities collaborate on five-year partnership

As a child attending the Duncan Indian School, Hul’qumi’num linguistic consultant Ruby Peter would sit on the swings and secretly spin tales. “I used to tell the younger kids Indian stories in my language. But we had to keep a look out for the teachers. If they caught me speaking Indian, I’d be punished.”

Peter no longer has to hide her pride in her language and thanks to a new Community University Research Alliance (CURA) partnership with UVic, she’ll join other members of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (representing six communities), the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF), the First Peoples’ Heritage Language and Culture Council and the Saanich Native Heritage Society (representing seven communities) in studying and revitalizing their native languages.

The five-year, $900,000 CURA grant, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will link UVic researchers with First Nations community members and elders. Together, they’ll create new programs, evaluate current ones and set up systems to keep the revitalized languages thriving in the future.

“This CURA responds to a passionate need and desire on behalf of the communities to help their languages live again,” says linguist Dr. Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins, the project’s lead researcher. “The researchers will be directed by the communities. The CURA will assess the community needs and determine how all the partners can best work together.”

All the First Nations partners have various projects underway. Collaborating with UVic linguists and others, the Hul’qumi’num have developed a dictionary and a written system for their oral language. The Saanich Native Heritage Society, with assistance from the FPCF, is ready to have the Saanich language, SENÇOÏEN, available on line as part of the Foundation’s First Voices project. The researchers and partners will use the CURA to coordinate existing community projects and identify opportunities for new programs. Some of the proposals being considered include language camps, language fairs and mentoring programs involving elders.

“I’m looking forward to being able to work with UVic linguistic experts along with our own SENÇOÏEN experts to be able to complete some of the work we started here on the grammar of SENÇOÏEN,” says John Elliott, a teacher at the Saanich Tribal School and chair of the Saanich Native Heritage Society. In addition to making the Saanich language available on line, the society is developing a dictionary and refining a curriculum guide. Some of the first children taught SENÇOÏEN at the school are now young parents, teaching the language to their own youngsters.

Hul’qumi’num elder and language teacher Florence James of the Penelakut Tribe hopes the project will expand opportunities to teach adults their own history in their own language. “Part of my work is to introduce the oral history, the way we learned when we were kids. This is what the students really enjoy. Most don’t learn their history in the traditional way and then the chance to pass it along to their children is lost.”

Czaykowska-Higgins says the CURA project will revitalize more than words. “Language is tied to culture. You can’t separate the two. When a language thrives, so does the culture.”

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Media contacts

Dr. Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins (Linguistics) at (250) 721-7428 or eczh@uvic.ca

Patty Pitts (UVic Communications) at (250) 721-7656 or ppitts@uvic.ca

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Keywords: languages and linguistics, Indigenous languages, revitalization, Indigenous

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