In News and Views,What's New

FirstVoices Celebrates 20 Years of Indigenous Languages

March 27, 2024

For Terralingua, the links between nature, culture, and language are inextricable, yet also vulnerable to the homogenizing effect of globalization and a handful of dominant languages. Diversity in all its forms is a precondition to long-term ecological resilience — not only for Indigenous lands and cultures but also for our entire planet.

We refer to this connection between nature, culture, and language as biocultural diversity. It has been most evident in places where the local environment sustained people, and in turn, people sustained the local environment through the traditional wisdom and behaviors embedded in their cultures and languages — and continues to be evident in places where this relationship is alive and well or has been reclaimed.

Therefore, we couldn’t have been more delighted to have been invited to a 20-year anniversary of the online language learning platform FirstVoices.com on International Mother Language Day this year. We joined with language keepers from around British Columbia (BC) on the traditional territory of the lək̓ʷəŋən People to celebrate not only the past 20 years but also the launch of a new version of its free, open-source, Indigenous language platform.

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Event guests use the new version of the FirstVoices free, open-source, Indigenous language platform. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography and provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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FirstVoices.com was built in collaboration with B.C. First Nations and is a technology platform for Indigenous language learning in a single open-source software designed to hold multiple languages, dialects, written and spoken materials, keyboards, apps, and recordings. B.C. First Nations can create customizable language sites, and importantly, communities retain full ownership and control of their data.

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The FirstVoices website is the portal to the online learning platform. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography and provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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Created 20 years ago, FirstVoices is a joint initiative of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF). FirstVoices.com is the brainchild of J’SIṈTEN John Elliott, a celebrated language champion, and Peter Brand, who were teaching colleagues at the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School in Brentwood Bay, BC, at the time. Both were present at the celebration to share their memories of those early days when the prototype was still in development.

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J’SIṈTEN and Peter Brand share their stories of the hurdles and successes in the early days of the FirstVoices online learning program. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography and provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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During this celebratory evening, J’SIṈTEN spoke of how proud he is of the many new teachers at the immersion school. He told a story about hearing children speaking SENĆOŦEN fluently, even without teachers around, and added that it brings him to tears “to hear our language living.”

Indeed, the transmission of culture was the theme that carried through the entire evening, which included spirited performances by traditional dancers, drummers, and singers led by SX̱EDŦELISIYE (Renee Sampson) from the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation, who spoke fluently in her SENĆOŦEN language. Children as young as three danced with those in their teens and looked up to the older girls for leadership.

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SX̱EDŦELISIYE introduced the cultural performances by students of the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School in her SENĆOŦEN language and in English. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography and provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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The performance by the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School included singing, dancing, and drumming. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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Before the event wound down, we heard from Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, Chair of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation. We’d like to end this post with her words as they eloquently captured the essence of biocultural diversity.

“Our languages are important. Our languages are a gift to us from the land.” She started with these simple but powerful words that resonated deeply with an already captivated audience. “Their voice is one that we cherish, protect, and work to continue. I have been blessed to have spent my life and work on my language.”

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Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, Chair of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, giving a stirring keynote speech. Photo: Julie Elizabeth Photography provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council

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Wánosts’a7 spoke of residential schools and the silencing of Indigenous languages. “To go home and be with people who had never been to white people’s schools — they had learned from the ancestors, spirit, from one another, the animals, the plants, water, the air, and the babies.”

Turning to the topic of the evening, she said, “This new piece of technology can help us remember the words of the old people. . . . They’ve been careful to ensure that what we embrace and use will be a strength and will help us.”

It is, perhaps, this idea of summoning strength for the coming journey of linguistic and biocultural revival that came across most loudly as Wánosts’a7 concluded, “These struggles that we’re faced with are being faced by people around the world. The land right now needs us. . . . There will come a time when the knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples will help the world.”

As advocates for biocultural diversity, Terralingua echoes Dr. Williams’ sentiments. Indeed, the celebration of FirstVoices’ milestone heralds a renewed commitment to preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages. We recognize Indigenous languages as invaluable gifts from the land and as necessities for ushering all of humanity toward a reciprocal relationship with the land for the thriving of all life on earth.