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Astrid Wilson exudes passion, heartache and fierce determination as she speaks of her ambition to become fluent in Haíɫzaqvḷa and to revive the ancestral language of her community of Bella Bella on British Columbia’s remote central coast.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s a tough journey,” she said.

“When it comes to language revitalization, there are so many emotions running through your mind as you relearn your language.”

The 19-year-old has almost completed the first year of an innovative post-secondary immersion program that allows her to learn the language of the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) First Nation without having to travel or abandon her home community.

Wilson feels the responsibility and the urgency to learn a language that only a small number of elders speak fluently. The pressure to learn it quickly – while the elders are still able to pass down his nation’s language and oral history – weighs heavily on his mind.

Handling anger and grief is also part of the learning process, Wilson said.

It’s extremely frustrating working so hard to wrap your brain and mouth around words and sounds that should have been your birthright, she said.

And there is heartbreak in understanding the magnitude of the loss of his nation, Wilson said.

Her grandmother and father, like many in the community, are “silent speakers” – people who understand a certain Haíɫzaqvḷa, but who lost the ability to speak it after being forced to attend boarding schools designed to suppress and erasing indigenous language and culture.

“It’s like a stab in the chest to know that I’m learning my language when my Nana got hers beaten,” she said.

Wilson strives to overcome her emotions and relishes the effort of learning as a conscious act of resistance – because the colonizers would have wanted her to surrender to the pain of the process.

“They would have wanted you to be angry, angry at yourself and at your identity,” she said.

Q̓átuw̓as Brown graduated from the first year of the inaugural 900-hour immersion program in Haíɫzaqvḷa last year and looks forward to starting the second year of the program with Wilson and his classmates in September.

The program is especially helpful for recent high school graduates who can now stay at Bella Bella to learn in person in their ancestral language and earn post-secondary credits, Brown said.

Language learning is more than academic, Brown said. This is essential for the future and well-being of the Haíɫzaqv First Nation.

“We’re doing the best we can in our current situation of ongoing colonization,” said Brown, who has written poetry about her experience in the language revitalization program.

Invaluable history, knowledge and culture are encoded in Haíɫzaqvḷa, Brown added.

And because of its importance, language revitalization is referred to as λiác̓i, a “house post” – a key priority in the unique reconciliation agreement recently finalized by the nation and the government of British Columbia.

The five-year revitalization plan is ambitious and aims to ensure the language is used conversationally in a wide variety of contexts in the community, from cradle to grave. Additionally, there will be heavy investment in teacher and fluent speaker training and other community-wide immersion programs. Concrete goals include doubling the number of fluent speakers in the community and raising 30 quiet speakers to fluency.

There is also the continuous development of a multitude of digital and online learning resources.

One of the Immersion Program instructors, Ǧvu̓í Rory Housty, regularly uses social media like Twitter and Tik Tok to teach Haíɫzaqvḷa.

So does Brown herself on Instagram, who teaches yoga classes incorporating Haíɫzaqvḷa.

In addition to the adult immersion program, there is a children’s “language nest” and a planned pilot program for quiet speakers who will simultaneously work on the trauma often associated with speaking Haíɫzaqvḷa, Brown said.

There are generations of people in her community who have been punished for using their language, so some people have a negative association with speaking Haíɫzaqvḷa, she said.

“The Silent Speaker Program is essential and will work through trauma and bring healing and light to our nation.”

This is a critical time because there is little direct transmission of Haíɫzaqvḷa from parent to child in the community, a concern for Brown who plans to have children in the immediate future.

“The only way to give my future children the language of their ancestors is to learn it first,” she said.

Wilson is also highly motivated to learn her native language through her commitment to children – her own in the future, those in her immediate family and those in the community.

Her dream is to combine her Haíɫzaqvḷa degree with a Masters in Education and teach young people in the land of traditional Haíɫzaqv territory where much of the language is rooted.

“I’m not doing this just for myself, but for my family and other people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn,” she said.

“But there is also a new opportunity to rewrite history by learning our language every day.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada

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