Indigenous education coordinator Arlene Deptuck came from Nanaimo to Terrace to speak about the importance of Sm’algya̱x language preservation and how it can be expressed through art.
“The opportunity to work with artists both Indigenous and non-Indigenous from all over the world has inspired me to take my language revitalization in new, creative ways,” she says.
More than 20 people attended a language and art workshop Feb. 20, aimed at deepening the understanding of the Tsimshian Sm’algya̱x language through art connecting people, language and place.
Participants first drew the contours of the greater Terrace area on a postcard, blurring the boundary lines using a mix of watercolours to reimagine the territory with Sm’algya̱x words incorporated into it.
Others, like Kitsumkalum education administrator Charlotte Guno, took images of local buildings like the Terrace Public Library and relabelled it ‘Wap liitsx’, which means ‘library’ in Sm’algya̱x.
“We’re having to think about maps in new ways as well now too, this is one space that’s allowing us some fun time to experiment with how that feels, making those shifts in our spirits to opening our hearts and minds for that,” Deptuck says.
Earlier that day, Deptuck visited local schools in the Coast Mountains School District 82 for her ‘Positive Change Postcards’ project, an art penpal exchange between these schools and schools in Nanaimo.
“The young people are going to be thinking about the languages in the two territories and have new understandings of the different Nations through language,” she says.
She decided to bring the project back to her home ancestral lands at Kitsumkalum and to Terrace through a sponsorship with the First Peoples Cultural Council, an organization that supports the revitalization of Indigenous languages.
“We are at a critical state for many of our languages all across Canada and North America,” Deptuck says. “We can’t just leave this to the Indigenous communities to do that, to do this work. If they’re just doing it and they come out into the mainstream community and there’s still this divide between the two of us, then there’s going to be a problem.”
The effects of attempted assimilation of Indigenous languages through colonialism, old laws and residential school systems can still be felt in communities including places like Terrace, where Indigenous residents make up 23 per cent of the city’s population, according to 2016 population data from Statistics Canada.
Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, a Sm’algya̱x language teacher at ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum and an adjunct professor of First Nations studies at the University of Northern BC, brought her class to the demonstration.
She says there is only one fluent Sm’algya̱x speaker left in Kitselas, and around three speakers in Kitsumkalum. As part of the Sm’algya̱x language revitalization efforts, 96-year old speaker Medeeg (John Reese), one of the last speakers of the language in Ketchikan Alaska, will be speaking at Kitsumkalum Hall from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on March 2.
Deptuck hopes her pilot program will spread to other parts of the province as language revitalization and preservation continues.
“By creating something that is engaging and fun, that brings in conversation and gives us space to shake things up a little bit and not be afraid — I’m happy to do that,” she says.