Chapter 9: Reclaiming Indigenous languages
Margaret Grant: So welcome to this segment of Essentials of Linguistics. My name is Margaret Grant and I’m a Lecturer at Simon Fraser University in the Linguistics Department and Cognitive Science Program. And today, we’re very happy to be presenting an interview with Rae Anne Claxton and I will let Rae Anne introduce herself.
Rae Anne Claxton: Huy ch q’u Margaret. ‘Een’thu Rae Anne Claxton [portion to be translated]. My name is Rae Anne Claxton, I’m from Tsawout and Cowichan, and I live in Cowichan.
Margaret Grant: Rae Anne thank you so much for being here. First, I’d love it if you would tell us a little bit about you, your nation and your language or languages.
Rae Anne Claxton: Well, I was born in Quw’utsun, which is referred to as Duncan BC here on Vancouver Island, and I was raised between here and my other home community of Tsawout First Nation. And as a child, I lived with my grandmother who was a Hul’q’umi’num’ speaker, but I also lived with my mother who lived in, Tsawout and worked at ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School. So I learned a little bit of SENĆOŦEN from my time in Saanich, but I spent a lot of time here in Quw’utsun, where both of my grandparents were L1 speakers of Hul’q’umi’num’. So although I wasn’t able to learn the language from them directly, I heard them speak and was spoken to in the language but never encouraged to speak back. So the language that I’ve been focusing on primarily is Hul’q’umi’num’ and it is a dialect of Halkomelem and the dialect that we speak here is referred to as Island Halkomelem but there’s also two dialects on the lower in the Lower Mainland.
Margaret Grant: And what is your role in the language reclamation process of Hul’q’umi’num’? And What work are you doing in this role?
Rae Anne Claxton: So for the past four years, I have been working on reclaiming language within my family and that was inspired with the loss of my grandmother, the last fluent speaker in my direct family. Since then, I returned to university, Simon Fraser University, where I attained a certificate in language proficiency of Hul’q’umi’num’. And at that time, I had also begun working within the community, we had offered programs such as Language House, I was involved in establishing a Language Nest here in in Cowichan. What else have we done? There was so much that that we’ve done over the years. I’m also a part of First People, First Peoples Cultural Council’s Mentor-Apprentice Program, where I am in the third year of my apprentice program with my si’lu, grandmother, Sarah Modeste. I have worked within the community providing language learning opportunities for children in care through Cowichan Tribes, Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem, their Child and Family Services. I’ve also worked on developing resources for language learners in the form of books and songs and poems. Just basically anything that I could work on in providing for language learners. That’s what I’ve been doing. Currently, I’m working on my PhD through the University of Alberta, in linguistics, and that’s kind of been the – that’s taken a lot of my time within the past two years. But I’ve continued my own personal language learning journey throughout that as well as teaching within my own family.
Margaret Grant: You started to mention this being an adult learner of the language yourself. What is it like for adults in your community to be adult language learners of Hul’q’umi’num’?
Rae Anne Claxton: As an adult language learner of Hul’q’umi’num’, the work is very emotional. I find the work to be very emotional. It’s very hard work. It’s very difficult work and you really need to to take all of the courage and all of the strength that you have to continue moving forward. In a time when we’re losing our first language speakers, it takes a lot of, a lot of self discipline, to encourage yourself to step forward, maybe when you might want to step back. It takes a lot of strength and conviction, and a lot of a lot of time, I have dedicated a lot of the past four years away from my family, learning the language to the best of my ability and providing services that I can to our community. It takes a lot of time, building relationships, in community, and with the remaining elders, to continue to learn to learn from them. I think that the major challenge that you may not anticipate when you think about learning your language is really just the emotional toll. And you may make connections with elders that will pass and while still trying to maintain work within the community, you have to go through the grieving process. And there are also minimal spaces for us to converse, in our language, especially throughout the pandemic, we have lost the spaces that were meant for us to connect. And the fear that we have of anything happening to our elders has been compounded by current circumstances. So that’s the reality of being an adult language learner, of an Indigenous language, during this time, I think is really, it’s, it’s a heavy job. And it really requires a lot of community involvement and a lot of moral support from wherever you can find it.
Margaret Grant: Oh, thank you for sharing that.
Rae Anne Claxton: As as an adult language learner, it has been a challenge to overcome the fear of speaking. And that is something that I think gets passed down in our blood memory, from the traumatic experiences that we’ve had. And it’s something that we will all overcome in our own way if we keep at it. And that is something that I’ve had to overcome, not being afraid to open my mouth and tried to speak. And still, almost four years later, I’m still working on not being afraid to open my mouth and speak and to make mistakes. And something my granny always tells me is that you can’t, you can’t do anything without making mistakes. Making mistakes is how you learn. And I think that within our communities, there’s been… there’s been generations of language loss, so there are generations of insecurities. And I think that approaching our language learning in any way that we can is very helpful. And that’s how it’s been helpful for me through learning linguistics. My grandmother, couldn’t explain to me why she would call my my eldest daughter sts’a’muqw, but she would call my youngest daughter [transcript in progress]. And she was passed away by time I’ve learned that that was a diminutive form. When you actually have a way to say it, a way to explain what is going on, explain the phenomenon explain the language, it makes it much easier to retain and to share.
Margaret Grant: You mentioned before we started recording, that you had been working within the Linguistics program and Indigenous Languages at SFU. But I wonder if you could comment on what your community’s experience has been like with linguists and the field of linguistics in general.
Rae Anne Claxton: What my community’s experience has been like? I can speak from my own familial experience within my family. I know that there’s documented language that I would love to have access to. I would say that relationships have not always been easy. And that that is something that I work for, as a student of linguistics, and something that I always try to remind myself, my family and my community, that we haven’t always had great relations either with institutions for education. And those are things that we have overcome, that we have collaborated with, that we have voiced our own needs within. And that’s something that I strive to do within linguistics, is to be a voice for my people, and for what we need at a community level. And what we really need at a community level is access to documentation that was done by previous linguists at a time when it might have been illegal for our people to practice our language. So at a time when children were taken to residential schools, children like my parents, language is being documented in our communities. And it’s very important that that language makes it back into our communities, and that any barriers to that language are removed.
Margaret Grant: Yes, absolutely.
Rae Anne Claxton: Especially at times when when we’re losing access to our elders, we need documentation of our previous elders accessible.
Margaret Grant: Yeah, so I’m hearing that there’s, yeah, some lack of trust.
Rae Anne Claxton: Yes, there’s lack of trust. And it’s, it’s actually something that inspired me to take on language. Knowing that I have a grandfather, for instance, whose mother had worked extensively on documenting the language. And he and his family obviously, would, would love to benefit from that wealth of knowledge. That’s always brought up in our communities, how when we lose an elder, we lose a library. Coming from an oral tradition, that we may not have the written documentation, and we may not have had access to technology, or the skills, in past times, to do what we can today, there was one thing that my grandmother had used to tell me all the time. And she used to always tell me that I live in a different time, that I am able to access things that our people may never have been given access to, that I may not be smarter than my ancestors, but I have abilities that they were denied. I have accessibility that they were denied, and I have opportunities that they were denied. And she always encouraged me to do the best that I could and to remember that in every step that I took, that there were, I’m taking steps that we weren’t allowed to take before. And I find that really inspiring. My grandmother is a fluent speaker. There were many, many stories that she wished that she could tell me, but she didn’t have the skills and English to do so. And I didn’t have the skills in Hul’q’umi’num’ to hear them for her. Especially now that I’m studying the language, I wish I had recorded my grandmother anyway. But I didn’t have the foresight to know that I would be able to read, to hear, to translate and transcribe the stories that my grandmother was to share with me. And so that’s when I think that’s what I think of personally. And I think that’s what many Indigenous people think of when they think of the field of linguistics, is that there are stories that are documented, there is history that is documented. And it’s about one of my current mentor, my mentor right now my granny Sarah Modeste always tells me that “you’re a bridge rayon, you have to act as a bridge” and and bring people together and bring things together. So I like to think of it that way.
Margaret Grant: And find any materials that could be brought back to the community then.
Rae Anne Claxton: Yeah, and not only that, but to make it accessible. Because there are many things that are publicly accessible, but it’s about delivering it in a way that is meaningful to where we are in revitalizing our language. I just wanted to say also that my own individual experience with linguists has been… I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had. And for the people that have helped me along within the field of linguistics. I just wanted to add that.
Margaret Grant: Is there anything else that you would like linguistics students, and introductory linguistics, students to know about your work and your language?
Rae Anne Claxton: I want linguistics students to know that I believe our people had a culture of understanding linguistics, and that we had a strong appreciation for linguistics. I wants Indigenous linguistics students to know that many of our people were fluent in many languages, and we spoke to each other in the language that we were comfortable with. We never forced others to conform to other languages. And many times, I’ve heard of our people say a couple was married from two different areas, and it was quite commonplace for the one the one partner to speak in one language, and the other to respond in the other language. So that’s something that I hope that is brought back to our people is a greater understanding of linguistic diversity, and acceptance. And what I would like linguistics students to know about our language is that it is live. And that as long as we are here, that it will remain alive. It can be intimidating to take on learning your Indigenous language, or the linguistics of your Indigenous language. But I do really find that the field of linguistics really helps break it down into manageable chunks. And just as I had made the parallel to education, I make the parallel to medicine. With breaking breaking down in different fields, it’s it’s quite similar.
Margaret Grant: So looking at different systems within the language.
Rae Anne Claxton: Mmmhmm yeah.
Margaret Grant: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for your participation today. And you know, for all the wonderful information you’ve given us about your personal journey and also about your communities journey. I can’t thank you enough for being part of the project.
Rae Anne Claxton: Thank you. Thank you for having me.