‘A historic day’: Northwest B.C. First Nation creates dictionary to save Witsuwit’en language

The Official Witsuwit’en-English Dictionary was released June 17. (Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society photo).The Official Witsuwit’en-English Dictionary was released June 17. (Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society photo).
Karen Plasway came on as the executive director of the Witsuwit'en Language and Culture Society in the spring of 2021. (Thom Barker photo)
Members of the Witsuwit'en language immersion program pose with the Witsuwit'en Language and Culture Society banner at the organization's facility in Witset. (Thom Barker photo)

As a result of colonization and forced assimilation, multiple Indigenous languages in the country are on the verge of extinction.

The Witsuwit’en Language & Culture Society is one group fighting to preserve their language.

On June 17, the society launched the Official Witsuwit’en-English Dictionary with a clear goal in mind: increase the number of people fluent in Witsuwit’en, Lucy Gagnon told Black Press Media.

“We have about three per cent of our nation that are fluent speakers.

“That adds up to about around 100 speakers, and for a nation of about 3,500, that’s very, very sad. So that’s been our goal, and the dictionary is one piece of the puzzle.”

Babine–Witsuwit’en or Nadot’en-Wet’suwet’en is an Athabaskan language spoken in the Central Interior of B.C.

Gagnon says in 1988, a group of elders and fluent speakers began the dictionary with assistance from Sharon Hargus, a professor at Washington University. After many years of drafts and reviews, it was decided that the dictionary would be released this year.

The Witsuwit’en Hibikinic contains contributions by generations of native speakers, an extensive cross-referencing system and an English index to support users.

It also has many illustrations, diagrams and photos.

The book was incredibly well-received during a recent launch event, with a buzz of excitement from those in attendance.

“It was amazing. It was a historic day. We had all of our language speakers, fluent speakers sitting around the head table, and there’s not a lot left. But just the excitement in people. We handed out 420 dictionaries in one day,” Gagnon said.

The first event was for those in Hagwilget and Witset First Nation, with a second event being planned for Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Ts’il Kaz Koh, Nee Tahi Buhn, and Skin Tyee.

According to data collected by the society, the rate of Witsuwit’en fluency went from 3.6 to 3.3 per cent since 2016, mostly due to several Elders passing on.

The average age of fluent speakers is 70 years old.

Currently, the society has 10 adult students learning Witsuwit’en. They will be graduating in late July.

The dictionaries will be available at the next event for Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Ts’il Kaz Koh, Nee Tahi Buhn, and Skin Tyee, with priority being the Witsuwit’en Membership.

After that it will be $125 upon availability.

An online version of the dictionary can be found at niwhkinic.ca.

Indigenous