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The nine Haida Elders who make up SHIP, as well as program coordinator Kevin Borserio (back row, left). Photo Credit: Skidegate Haida Immersion Program

Haida Elders create “Great Work” over two decades to preserve and revitalize their language; Vancouver Island University recognizes Elders’ contributions with honorary degrees on Monday, June 3, 2019.

NANAIMO, BC—When a culture loses its language, an irreparable connection to the essence of a people is gone. One way to kill a Nation is to kill their language. The architects of the Canadian Indian Residential School System understood this, which is why they forcibly forbade their young charges from speaking their own language. The result of losing this linguistic diversity is a tragic loss to Canada of the wisdom, complexity and true understanding contained in the richness of Indigenous languages and cultures.

However, a dedicated and passionate group of Haida Elders, a generation who lived through residential schools, have spent the last 21 years ensuring this is not the case for the Haida people. In 1998, they created the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP), designed to preserve and revitalize HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil, the Skidegate dialect of the Haida language.

Since SHIP began, despite illness and other challenges, the Elders have gathered five days a week, 10 months a year to remember and to record their previously oral language for this and future generations.

Vancouver Island University (VIU) is honoured to recognize their remarkable work with Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees to all nine Elders. Their names are Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Jones), Yang K’aalas (Grace Jones), Ildagwaay (Bea Harley), Taalgyaa’adad (Betty Richardson), Jiixa (Gladys Vandal) Sing.giduu (Laura Jormanainen), SGaanajaadsk’yaagaxiigangs (Kathleen Hans), Niis Waan (Harvey Williams) and GwaaGanad (Diane Brown). Together, they comprise the Skidegate Haida Language Authority. They will receive their awards during VIU’s afternoon convocation ceremony on Monday, June 3 starting at 2:30 pm.

With an average age of 84, these “language professors” represent about half of all fluent HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil speakers. Their contribution is an avalanche of language preservation including translating and producing more than 200 CD-ROMs; developing an app with 2,000 words and 500 phrases available to anyone with an Internet connection; writing “The Glossary” which contains more than 26,000 Haida words; translation of 14 Haida Readers; creating a variety of educational resources including 130 lesson plans and 80 children’s books; and much more. With justice in their souls, they support the Haida title case, including a Haida Place Names Mapping Project with more than 2,200 Haida place names. All this, in addition to the lives they touch daily, as Elders, giving because they can, through teaching and role modelling.

SHIP played an important role in the making of an award-winning, feature-length movie filmed in the Haida language: SGaawaay K’uuna – The Edge of the Knife.

“This nomination for nine Haida Elders receiving Honorary Doctor of Laws Degrees has its genesis in the VIU Faculty of Education,” said Les Malbon, VIU Sport, Health and Physical Education Professor. “The faculty humbly pays respect and tribute to the Elders’ engagement and ways of being, knowing and understanding. Faculty members recognize that they can learn at a deep and transformative level from these living libraries and pass this learning on to their students. These nine Haida Elder wisdom keepers are completing the Great Work (magnus opus) of their lives. They have brought forth a body of work from the core of their being that captures the richness of language and culture and showcased it to the world. The Great Work is resurgent, regenerative, transformative and is a gift for all future generations.”

“It is fitting that SHIP be recognized by VIU during the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages,” said VIU Chancellor Louise Mandell. “This year we seek healing, from the violent disruption and interruption of language transmission and recovery of humanity’s linguistic heritage. Indigenous languages are disappearing around the world at unprecedented rates, with Canada one of the worst examples. We are overwhelmed with admiration and inspiration, and celebrate SHIP’s love and lasting legacy.”

Short biographies of each SHIP Elder:

Ildagwaay (Beatrice Harley) is the eldest woman and clan mother of the K’aadas Ga KiiGawaay, also known as the Raven-Wolf clan of T’aanuu. She was born on November 17, 1928 in Skidegate to Louise and George Price. She eloped with husband, Kenneth Harley, a sailor in the merchant navy, to Prince Rupert so her husband could immigrate and they married on February 7, 1949. They have two daughters – Barbara and Margaret. She has been with SHIP since the beginning. She taught at the Haida Heritage Centre and the Skidegate Health Centre and now mentors students. She is a fluent speaker and teacher of Xaayda Kil.

Taalgyaa’adad (Betty Richardson) was born to Rosalind and Fred Russ on May 11, 1935 in Skidegate. She and her family lived with her paternal grandmother until she was 13. Her grandmother spoke fluent Xaayda Kil. Her mother attended residential school for eight years. Taalgyaa’adad married Miles Richardson, Chief Cheexial (a hereditary Chief of the Haida Nation) in 1954. They have six children and 13 grandchildren. She is an Eagle from the Ts’aahl clan. She owned and operated her own travel agency from 1978- 1995. She started teaching at SHIP in 2000. She is a fluent Xaayda Kil speaker and now teaches four-and five-year-olds in the nursery school.

Jiixa (Gladys Vandal) is from the Eagle Clan of Skidegate, Gidins Naa’yuuaans XaaydaGaay (Big House People). Her parents were Kathleen Young Hans and Isaac Hans. She is a fluentXaayda Kil speaker and has taught at SHIP for 21 years. She has great passion for Haida language and culture and is currently mentoring a few students.

SGaanajaadsk’yaagaxiigangs (Kathleen Clara Hans) goes by the nickname Golie and was born July 13, 1933 at her mother’s house in Skidegate. Her clan is Skidegate Gidins, known as the Naa’yuuaans XaaydaGaay (Big House People). She is an Eagle and her clan’s crests are the two-headed raven, ‘waasGuu (sea wolf monster), killer whale, grizzly, sculpin, halibut, and ts’aamus (supernatural, transforming, living log). She recalls her mother telling her they come from the killer whale. She worked as a Haida Watchman in Hotsprings for 25 years, protecting the village sites during the summer. She has taught Xaayda Kil for 38 years and has been with SHIP since the beginning.

Niis Waan (Harvey Williams) was born on May 13, 1932 in Skidegate to Fred and Eva Williams. He belongs to the Gaagyals KiiGawaay, also known as the Skedans clan, and given the name Niis Waan by Susan Williams, his maternal nanaay (grandmother). His maternal chinaay (grandfather) was John Williams. He is a fluent Xaayda Kil speaker and has taught at SHIP since the beginning. He would like more conversation in Haida lessons, believes immersion is the most effective way to learn and encourages students not to get discouraged over mistakes.

Sing.giduu (Laura Jormanainen) is a member of the Skedans clan and was born January 28, 1936 in Skidegate. She is a fluent Xaayda Kil speaker who has been teaching at Sk’aadGa Naay Elementary School since 1992 and has been with SHIP for 10 years. She has three grandsons, one great granddaughter and one great grandson. She also has two brothers, one sister and two daughters.

GwaaGanad (Diane Brown) is an educator, healer and nanaay (grandmother). She is a language and knowledge holder of the Ts’aahl Eagle clan of the Haida Nation. GwaaGanad has lived her whole life on the land and waters of Haida Gwaii gathering food, and learning and practicing Haida medicine. She is the youngest first language speaker of Xaayda Kil and served her Elders and community as the first Community Health Representative in Skidegate from 1970-1998. She has dedicated her life to protecting her people, culture and the Earth. In 1985, along with many other Haida people, she was arrested for blocking logging on Lyell Island. The area is now protected as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. Since 1986, GwaaGanad has been a member of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth. She is a founding member of SHIP and has founded many groups in the protection and growth of the Haida culture. She is a retired professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. She has two children and four grandchildren. She continues to live in Skidegate with her soulmate, Ganxwad Dullskin Brown where they gather food, spend time with grandchildren and speak and teach Haida.

Yang K’aalas (Grace Velma Jones) was born in Skidegate on January 6, 1929. She is what was referred to as a silent speaker – as a child she spoke Xaayda Kil even though it was forbidden at school. Joining SHIP allowed Yang K’aalas to use her knowledge of the Haida language to contribute to the preservation of her language and culture. She married Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Jones), who is also a SHIP Elder, on December 1, 1948 and the two just celebrated 70 years of marriage. They have spent much of their lives together traveling and as they travel they develop Xaayda Kil words and phrases that have not previously existed for what they see and experience. Yang K’aalas is a fluent Xaayda Kil speaker and teacher. At 90 years of age, she still lives at home and visits Gaayinguuhlas in the hospital. Together, they have two adopted children, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren. One of their children is Cheexial Taaiixou (Chief Roy S Jones Jr.).

Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Charles Jones) was born in Lagoon Bay, Haida Gwaii on August 3, 1924. He grew up in Haida Gwaii and fished with his father starting at the age of 12. He spent his life as a commercial fisherman. Although he only possessed a Grade 6 education, he was very successful in the fishing industry. While he worked as a fisherman, he took every opportunity to teach Xaayda Kil and used the language with other Haida fishermen to protect good fishing areas. In 1970, he and his wife, Yang K’aalas, began a fishery that continues today. He cultivated great relationships up and down the west coast with many fishing families and spent years volunteering for basketball games at home and away, including the All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert, BC. Gaayinguuhlas is a fluent Xaayda Kil speaker and taught whenever he could. He became involved with SHIP to preserve and revitalize the language. In October, 2018, he suffered a stroke and heart attack. He is now in hospital, but even from his bed continues his work with students.

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