First Notions #4 - Our Language – Our Identity

There are many Indigenous peoples living in British Columbia. It is home to 203 First Nations communities and a diversity of Indigenous languages; approximately 60% of the First Nations languages of Canada are spoken in B.C.  The early predictions were that many of the Indigenous languages will disappear in ten years. This study was done in 2010, by First Peoples Cultural Council. Four years later another study by the First Peoples Cultural Council showed an increase in language speakers, but the number of fluent speakers remained in the age 65 year and older category.  However, the number of semi-fluent speakers has increased since 2010, so there are hopeful signs that we are recovering our languages. For the full report, you can visit First Peoples Culture Council website.

I am probably a member the ‘below semi-fluent’ language speakers cohort. I was fluent as a child, and in fact could not speak any English when I started elementary school. We were taught English in Grade One.  Our teacher was from Austria, and it was very funny when all of us Indigenous children performed our first Christmas pageant with German accents!  I was sent away in Grade 8 to complete my high school education, so over the years I lost my Nisga’a language.  It was not until a couple of years ago that I was coerced into joining a Nisga’a class by my children.

It was a blessing in so many ways for me to finally recognize that I needed my language to understand our Nisga’a history.  The other blessings were that I could learn with my children, and also learn from my half-sister, whom I did not meet until very late in my life. She, together with other Elders, wrote the Nisga’a language course for our community, and this made it especially meaningful to me.

She acknowledged my children’s efforts to learn their language, and it brought one of my daughters to tears because she was acknowledged by an Elder, and not only an Elder, but by her aunt. This was truly a proud moment for me and my daughter. I was able to be proud of my language again and not be afraid to try to speak it anymore. 

My wife, Linda, is now taking Nisga’a language lessons as well, and has joined us in our Nisga’a dance group.  The Nisga’a language has a very different way of addressing how we speak in our sentence structure. Therefore we have had all to learn to speak Nisga’a in Nisga’a thought patterns, and Linda now understands why my English sentence structure is different sometimes when I speak!  Up until now I didn’t totally realize how important my language was to me and my family.  It gave us a new connection and a better understanding of who we are as Nisga’a people.  Learning my language has helped me realize that my Nisga’a heritage has been very close to me all this time.

Returning to speaking our language is an all-important move for all our people.  The identity that we are looking for is found in our language.  By taking away our language, the government took away our historical way of looking at our laws, our lands, and our spirituality.  We are an oral society that did not write things down in books.  Our laws, our spirituality, and our family history were all passed on by word of mouth.  As I had said in my first blog entry, even my name had a special ranking in my House of our Eagle Clan. My Traditional name has a story behind it, and so do all our names and the significance of all our Houses. All of this knowledge is still being recovered from Elders who’ve managed somehow to hang onto our stories.

In the end, the government broke pieces of us, but could not take our true heritage away.   We all have that in us, and we have a quiet understanding of the strength we get from being as Nisga’a, Cree, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam or Metis, or a  member of one of the rest of our relatives in the different language groups. Each and everyone understands when they learn the teachings of their grandparents and parents, and no matter how small a part of the teachings or the language that they know, it enables them to say “I am Nisga’a” or “I am Cree”, and to claim their heritage.  All of the labels and names given to us by the Federal government have not replaced our own understanding of who we truly are.


The old reserve of Aiyansh on the Nass River, 1950s.  The large brown building in the forefront is St. Peter’s Anglican Church.  It was later replaced by St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, shown on the right.