In June of 2019, I was very fortunate to attend a unique event: the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL “Let the Languages Live” conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 24–26, 2019).
Organized by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, two prominent First Nations organizations in British Columbia, in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, Let the Languages Live was an international gathering of Indigenous Peoples to celebrate the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. The conference brought together over one thousand Indigenous language experts and advocates from around the world to celebrate Indigenous languages, share knowledge and experiences, and support one another in their language maintenance and revitalization efforts.
It was a rare opportunity for me to listen to and learn from an extraordinary group of Indigenous language champions, deeply committed to ensuring that the many voices of humanity — the world’s diverse languages, most of which are Indigenous — continue to be heard. In particular, in the context of Langscape Magazine’s special 2019 project, the Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle, I was especially interested in making contact with the younger generation of language champions — the Indigenous youth who have devoted themselves to keeping their languages alive and well for generations to come.
I wasn’t disappointed. In a number of conference sessions, I heard exceptional Indigenous youth speak with passion and commitment about learning their ancestral languages, reconnecting to their cultural traditions, and becoming active in language and culture revitalization. They spoke openly about the sometimes daunting challenges as well as the profound rewards of engaging in such efforts. It was clear that they all shared a deep sense of a mission that went well beyond their individual selves.
I was immediately convinced that these brave youth’s experiences should be shared widely, and decided to follow up with several of them after the conference to propose interviews in the form of written Q&A exchanges. Skil Jaadee White (Haida), one of the participants in the panel discussion “Youth Involvement in Language Revitalization” along with Gisèle Martin (Tla-o-qui-aht) and Jordan Brant (Mohawk), agreed to the interview. Here’s my illuminating exchange with Skil Jaadee. I do hope it will be inspiring to other Indigenous youth and to anyone with an interest in language revitalization!
Luisa Maffi (LM): Please introduce yourself: your Indigenous name, if you have one; your non-Indigenous name; your tribal affiliation, lineage, etc.; your age; where you were born and where you live now; a bit about how you grew up and your life experience and activities so far; anything else you’d like to say to identify/describe yourself!
Skil Jaadee White (SJW): My name is Skil Jaadee White. I’m from the yahgu janaas Raven Clan of the Haida Nation. I am 24 years old and was raised in Old Massett on Haida Gwaii, an island off the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia, Canada. I grew up connected to my culture, as my dad is a Haida artist and my mother is a Xaad Kil (Haida language) teacher. Their influence pushed me to be involved in a lot of cultural practices and experiences. I went to university for a few years in Vancouver, and now am back home working as a language resource coordinator.
LM: Did you grow up speaking your language, or at least hearing it spoken around you? Or, if you didn’t learn your language as a kid, when did you start learning it? What led/motivated you to start learning? Was anything or anyone particularly instrumental in your decision to learn? And how did you go about doing it (personal initiative, language apprentice program, etc.)?
SJW: I grew up learning and practicing my language. When I was a kid, we still had a lot of elders in our community who spoke Haida as a first language. My parents decided to start learning more seriously in the 1990s because they realized how important it was to spend as much time as possible with those elders. We had language dinners once a week. There must have been about 15 to 20 elders who attended, as well as the learners who brought their families and kids like me along. It was such a normal thing for me to go there and listen to our Naaniis and Chinniis (grandmothers and grandfathers) speak Haida while we ate sea urchin or halibut or salmon.
It was such a normal thing for me to go there and listen to our Naaniis and Chinniis (grandmothers and grandfathers) speak Haida while we ate sea urchin or halibut or salmon.
As I got older, more and more elders passed away, taking their wealth of knowledge with them. Spending time with them meant so much to me, even beyond learning language. I knew I had to do what I could in my capacity to really treasure what these elders were willing to generously offer. I learned Xaad Kil in school, in an immersion bootcamp, under a mentor-apprentice program, in an isolated camp immersion, and on my own with my family. The most effective methods have been the immersions and practicing at home.
LM: What challenges and rewards have you encountered in following your language learning path? How did you cope with the stumbling blocks and frustrations that must undoubtedly have come along with it? And what has been the best thing about it for you?
SJW: For me, a huge challenge is not being able to practice or speak with people my age. It’s hard to think about, but someday we won’t have fluent elders to speak with; we’ll only have each other. I have a few friends who are learning, but with the colonized mindset that gives importance to post-secondary education and careers, people who can’t afford the time or energy put learning our language on the back burner.
It makes me really sad that this is a choice our people have to make. But we’re all slowly learning how to navigate this foreign system to make it work for our Indigenous livelihoods. I am optimistic that these things will grow together more over time. On a positive note, I have seen great success in our recent language courses that were offered under the office I work at (Xaad Kil Nee), through Simon Fraser University. It’s really beautiful to see more and more people reaching out to learn our language. I find so much motivation in seeing us all face and overcome the same challenges.
LM: Was there any special moment or episode in this journey that you recall as a turning point, a transition — something that made you suddenly feel like “ah, I’m not turning back now”? If yes, can you please describe it?
SJW: There was never a “no turning back” moment because of how much this has been my life… Where would I turn back to? Whenever there are times that I practice less or stop completely, I don’t feel full. Something that really motivated me to continue learning was being in my high school Xaad Kil class. We had an elder we called Tsinnii Stephen (Brown) who worked with the classes every day. He always said the language has become so much more simplified now and did his best to teach us the “old” Haida. Outside of the high school, he worked as a mentor with many learners including my mother. He had so much faith in us to hold on to the knowledge he shared. You could feel it in the way he spoke to you. I still hold on to that faith he gave us.
LM: Do you feel that learning the language has been changing how you see yourself and your place in the world, how you relate to other community members (particularly the older generations), how you connect to your people’s cultural and spiritual traditions and your traditional lands and lifeways? If yes, how so?
SJW: Of course. Language naturally bridges lifeways. We say our language derives from our land. I think a lot of Indigenous languages have examples of words that align with what sounds the environment generates. I love learning about the supernatural beings that inhabit and surround Haida Gwaii. You can learn a lot from the humor and wisdom behind these stories. Both those things are found in our elders too, which is why I value spending time with them so much. As for my place in this world, what I know for sure is that I’m here to learn what I can from my culture and people. I’m a chain link toward a stronger future. I’m still understanding the repercussions of intergenerational trauma, but I’m also learning about intergenerational healing. All these things connect, and they all have healing qualities, in whatever capacity you’re able to engage in them. That’s what keeps me optimistic for our people.
LM: Skil Jaadee, you are a talented emerging artist. What has your path been? Did you work in the Haida tradition from the beginning, or how did you come to choose to work in that tradition? Why is it important to you as a form of artistic expression?
SJW: I’ve been practicing Haida art in and out of school since I was a child. We were really encouraged to make art by all the schools in my community. Outside of school, I would learn directly and indirectly from my family members who all practice different cultural art forms. As of right now, I’m not exclusive to any particular art form. I enjoy painting, making regalia, and I want to learn how to weave more in depth. I think all art forms correlate with one another, and if my heart is saying to do something, then I’ll do it. Listening to what my intuition says feels right is important to me. I make art because it feels good. It’s a form of storytelling and it’s a language in itself. Our people were oral historians: we didn’t have written history, so we relied on our storytellers and our art to carry those narrations forward.
LM: What’s next for you in your journey of language revitalization and cultural affirmation?
SJW: I think for now I will continue building connections with our Indigenous language communities who are all working towards the same goal. It’s so important to connect with other learners to know that you are not alone in your journey, to share what works with one another, and to uplift one another. I’m focusing on how I can support people who want to learn. This autumn and winter, I’m preserving old audiotapes of our elders so that they can be archived. Hopefully, when I feel content with those things, I will go back to school for language revitalization programs, so I can offer more to my community.
LM: Any advice for other Indigenous youth who may be thinking of learning their language?
SJW: I say take advantage of opportunities! There have been lots of times when I would doubt myself or even overlook an opportunity. But when I take the chance to go out there and do it, I am so grateful. Honestly, it was always my mom who pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone. I did it so much that now, when there’s a chance to do something, I have an automatic voice saying to me: “It will be good for you, so just try.” Your nation needs you. You have something incredible to offer even if you don’t realize it yet. I truly believe that learning your language lights a fire inside of you that will always keep you warm.
Your nation needs you. You have something incredible to offer even if you don’t realize it yet.
LM: Anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t touched on?
SJW: Xaad kihl ga hl suu.u (Haidi)
Skil Jaadee White is a member of the yahgu janaas Raven Clan of the Haida Nation. Born and raised in Haida Gwaii, an island off the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia, Canada, she is a talented emerging artist in the Haida tradition. After going to university for a few years in Vancouver, she is back home working as a language resource coordinator with the Xaad Kil Nee program, which offers Haida language immersion courses.
An Invitation to Young Indigenous People
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.
If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!