In Langscape Magazine Articles

Quarantine as Ceremony: COVID-19 as an Opportunity to Quietly Rebel Against the Dominant Langscape

July 22, 2020

Severn Cullis-Suzuki

The Haida people know the cost of disease. They have lived in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the west coast of Canada, for the past 14,000 years. In their recent history, after the first encounter with Europeans in 1774, waves of smallpox, measles, and other contact diseases ravaged the Haida population. From 30,000-strong, the population hit its lowest in 1915, when 588 living souls were recorded. The apocalypse of disease was accompanied by other devastating blows: the land and rights, Christianity forced onto the people at their weakest, natural resources ravaged, and finally, children taken away en masse. Residential schools took Haida children, like my father-in-law Dull Brown, as far away as Edmonton, Alberta.

Skidegate Haida Immersion Program

The Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) brings together the last fluent speakers of X̱aayda kil, who have gathered daily for the past 22 years to record the language for future generations. Photo: Mary Helmer, 2019

But the Haida never ceased to be an empowered people or to fight for their rights. Even at their nadir, they spoke eloquently for their rights and title at the McKenna–McBride Commission (a Royal Commission that was established in 1912 to “resolve the Indian reserve question” in British Columbia and that operated until 1916). In 1926, the Haida traveled to Ottawa with the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia to remind the Canadian Parliament: “We have not been conquered.” One hundred years later, the Haida Nation has built its own National Government, the Council of the Haida Nation; defended its land from clearcut logging in the struggle for South Moresby (now internationally known as Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve); and is tackling linguistic imperialism. In 2010, the Haida officially returned the colonial name given to the archipelago in 1778, “the Queen Charlotte Islands,” to Canada and Her Majesty the Queen. Today the proper name of the archipelago, Haida Gwaii (meaning “Islands of the People”) is on the maps.

Despite the litany of assaults, the Haida language has survived: first-language speakers of Haida still live today, in 2020. Now the eldest in the community, Haida language speakers have navigated history and maintained the linguistic heritage of their people. And now, the younger generations are taking up the call to keep the language aloud.

Despite the litany of assaults, the Haida language has survived….now, the younger generations are taking up the call to keep the language aloud.

I am honored to be an immigrant to Haida Gwaii. My blood comes from England and Japan. My family came to visit Haida Gwaii when I was a child, and we made lifelong friends there who became family. I was ceremonially adopted into the Wolf Raven Clan of Tanu as a youth and eventually married G̱udt’aawt’is Judson Brown of the Ts’aahl Eagle Clan. My Haida name is Kihlgula G̱aay.ya.

When I moved permanently to the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii fourteen years ago, I joined my husband in his quest to learn his heritage language of X̱aayda kil, the Skidegate dialect of the Haida language. His mother, Dr. GwaaG̱anad Diane Brown, at 72, is the youngest speaker of X̱aayda kil, but like other Haida his age, G̱udt’aawt’is was not brought up speaking the language. He started learning X̱aayda kil as an adult, attending the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) from its inception in 1998. SHIP is a program of fluent speakers, now Elders, who have been coming together since then, each day, from 9 to 3 p.m., to record X̱aayda kil for future generations. They have produced an incredible body of work for future generations studying X̱aayda kil. Along with several others, G̱udt’aawt’is and I have been working to become New Speakers of X̱aayda kil so that our children might be able to grow up with the language. It has become a life cause, and for the past decade I have been using all my abilities towards this aim.

Today humanity stands at a defining moment, as we find ourselves in the midst of a mass extinction event, due to our mismanagement of the natural world.

One of my interests in learning X̱aayda kil is that of an environmentalist. Today humanity stands at a defining moment, as we find ourselves in the midst of a mass extinction event, due to our mismanagement of the natural world. The longer I live here, the more I realize that fighting for the language is fighting for a worldview that respects Earth in a profound way.

Representing a profoundly different mental landscape, Indigenous languages reveal entirely distinct ways of being, ones that are not at odds with Life around us. In her article, “Speaking of Language” (Orion Magazine, 2017), Dr. Robin Kimmerer writes about the grammar of animacy, describing the use of pronouns for life forms in her Potawatami language, which conveys proper respect for life by the language user. She notes, “I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber.” Indigenous languages are a portal to a relationship with Earth.

The teachings of respect, reciprocity, and relationship with the land are embedded in the language.

With the leadership of several others, especially my jiiG̱uu naadaay (mother-in-law) Dr. GwaaG̱anad, I am proud of our work establishing a Language Nest and a Mentor Apprentice Program here on Haida Gwaii, as well as of my own language learning. It is important not only for the people of Haida Gwaii but also for all humanity, as the teachings of respect, reciprocity, and relationship with the land are embedded in the language and in the teachings that GwaaG̱anad and other Elders share with us.

Dr. GwaaG̱anad Diane Brown

Nanaay (Grandmother) Dr. GwaaG̱anad Diane Brown has many students of X̱aayda kil. Here GwaaG̱anad plays Siiga ad K’yuu (Snakes & Ladders) with grandson Tiisaan in 2019. Photo: Kihlgula G̱aay.ya, 2019

Needing more skills, I decided to pursue a doctorate for this cause and am currently finishing my year of PhD research in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The core of my current research focuses on language revitalization within our family. I was so excited to tackle the language work within my family as my singular focus, for a whole year. Part of the methodology of my family research was to spend four hours a day speaking X̱aayda kil with my children and G̱udt’aawt’is. I started in June of 2019, and we made great progress through the summer. It was interesting to see how our minds relaxed into the language by the end of hour two each day.

When September came, however, the children went to school, and I was busy working on different projects, and suddenly it was almost impossible to achieve four hours speaking Haida. It seemed as if we didn’t have enough time to do the work: if it wasn’t school, we were busy with community events or traveling to Vancouver to visit my parents. . . . We were busy. English was necessary to get through work, homework, and social interactions. After Christmas, halfway through the project, I was disappointed with our lack of time in the language. I was worried: if we didn’t have time to focus on the language with the kids when they were eight and ten years old, would we ever?

With a history 14,000 years long, the Haida memory of epidemics that swept through the archipelago in the 1800s, wiping out over ninety-eight percent of the people, is never far away.

Shortly thereafter, everything changed. In February 2020, the world awoke to a novel disease, COVID-19. Outbreaks became an epidemic, and that turned into a pandemic. With a history 14,000 years long, the Haida memory of epidemics that swept through the archipelago in the 1800s, wiping out over ninety-eight percent of the people, is never far away. The will to protect precious Elders was strong. Haida Leadership announced a State of Emergency, and all flights to the islands were canceled. Haida authorities met the ferries arriving with freight and asked any visitors aboard to turn around. When this State of Emergency was declared in March, it was spring break in school, and my children and I were visiting my parents in southern British Columbia. We caught the last flight back to Haida Gwaii. My husband picked us up at the airport with masks for us to wear. He did not give us hugs, and he did not stay in our home with us. Suddenly, we were home, and grounded. So began our two-week quarantine.

There was nowhere to turn but inward, and we turned to the language.

At first, I was binging on news through devices—news sites, TV, social media. I consistently found myself reading online at two in the morning. But I soon reached media overload. I turned off the radio and the TV. There was no visiting anyone or going to community events. There was no school. There was nowhere to turn but inward, and we turned to the language. There was no reason or excuse why we couldn’t use X̱aayda kil all the time. We pulled out all our board games for easy access. We turned on the audio player and listened to Haida songs and sang along. We turned the living room into an art zone with a hot glue gun, cedar bark, buttons, and crayons. We did everything together, and we did it all in Haida.

Haida-style action figures

Haida-style action figures dressed in cedar bark, which my children created during our COVID-19 quarantine. Hipflasks contain taw (candlefish oil, also known as oolichan grease), which is their source of superpowers. Photo: Kihlgula G̱aay.ya, 2020

After two weeks in quarantine, we were calm. We had new routines. We had slowed down. We cooked together, and spoke X̱aayda kil. We ate together, and spoke X̱aayda kil. We cleaned up together, and spoke X̱aayda kil. We played board games in X̱aayda kil, and we gardened in X̱aayda kil. We did art projects in X̱aayda kil. We called Nanaay (Grandmother) and put her on speakerphone and spoke X̱aayda kil with her. Suddenly, I found that we were spending at least four hours in X̱aayda kil every day.

making cedar rope

Weaver Jaad Tl’aaw Paula Varnell taught us how to make cedar rope while we were in quarantine. Photo: Kihlgula G̱aay.ya, 2020

After two weeks, G̱udt’aawt’is returned to our household and joined our isolation pod. But the TV stayed off. We remained isolated from others. And we kept speaking X̱aayda kil. At the same time, Earth began to come alive: spring began to break, and we greeted the year’s first daytime low tides with proper focus and reverence. By limiting our English and media diet, our mental landscapes were different. We were more alert to Earth and to one another. My sons each hunted their first naw (octopus) on their own. We gathered other seafood—scallops and geoducks and chitons. Nanaay and Chinaay (Grandfather) gave us socially distanced lessons on how to make medicine. The children learned to say grace in X̱aayda kil.

skinning an octopus

Chinaay (Grandfather) G̱angxwaat Dull Brown shows his grandson Ganhlaans how to skin an octopus. Photo: Kihlgula G̱aay.ya, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic brought so much fear and uncertainty. There was incessant worry and always the threat of panic. We could not make plans: the future was entirely undefined. My mind often turned to contemplating what the mothers went through during the great smallpox epidemic of 1862 here on Haida Gwaii, but I could not dwell long on those thoughts, as this experience is nothing like the horror then. But we got over the fear when we found our routine rooted in X̱aayda kil.

By limiting our English and media diet, our mental landscapes were different. We were more alert to Earth and to one another.

And when we did this, it felt like sacred time. All our obligations had been removed, and we just focused on our own health, the land, and the language. It was as if we were in ceremony. First it was for fourteen days, but then it became a month, and then two months, as we isolated from the rest of the world, deepening our interactions with one another, the land, and the language. It was something like what I’d envisioned when I created my PhD proposal but hadn’t been able to achieve due to my commitment to my normal busy life in an English langscape.

I am in contact with other language activists in our community and see that others have also turned inward, deepening their language work in their homes. Because we can’t go out to do our language work, we have turned our homes into language houses, with walls covered in sticky notes and papers in our language. We have kitchen offices to keep the language close to daily life, with books, audio recordings, and endless scraps of paper. One of the fluent Elders in the community, Dr. Jiixa Gladys Vandal, keeps her CD player, iPad, and SHIP books on a kitchen desk all ready to go at any time. She says she talks to herself in Haida daily because she misses it so much. New Speaker Daall Jaad Melody Gravelle has made her home a X̱aayda kil home, with language everywhere and photos of those who inspire her to speak X̱aayda kil. Dr. GwaaG̱anad has her books and iPhone set up on her dining table so that she can hold daily lessons with her language learners.

working on X̱aayda kil

Dr. Jiixa Gladys Vandal in her kitchen office during COVID-19 times, working on X̱aayda kil every day. Photo: Kihlgula G̱aay.ya, 2020

Since that time, our little family has turned the radio (and TV!) back on for contact and connection. But our time in quarantine and isolation was instructive. That time was sacred. We will return to that time for direction because now we know what is possible. And we have been changed by that time. My children now sometimes speak X̱aayda kil together while they are playing, and they have a collection of Haida-centric toys and games that we created; their playtime is infused with culture and language. They sing Haida songs all the time, and whenever they see a bird, frog, or fish, they speak aloud directly to them in X̱aayda kil. My husband and I have lunch together and speak only X̱aayda kil. These are changes from the Time Before. The language nest of our home has developed more fully because of our isolation, and we will continue our commitment to removing English for certain time periods and in certain rooms.

The language holds strength and resilience within it. We owe it to all of those who have sacrificed to find the teachings within these challenges. And we owe it to our precious Elders, who have maintained the language for us this long, to speak the language. To keep it aloud.

To date, Haida Gwaii has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19; the vigilance is working. It’s been very difficult to be isolated from one another in the face of a great challenge. Many are sacrificing today: it has been awful not to go to someone’s house when a loved one has passed away and not to visit Elders living in the hospital. Many sacrificed in the past—and it is profoundly humbling to think of the Haida who survived over the past two hundred and fifty years for their children to live here on Haida Gwaii today. And despite all the odds, they carried the Haida language forward to the present for us: the language holds strength and resilience within it. We owe it to all of those who have sacrificed to find the teachings within these challenges. And we owe it to our precious Elders, who have maintained the language for us this long, to speak the language. To keep it aloud. I am grateful for our Language Quarantine. It has shown us that, while there is still uncertainty all around us, in X̱aayda kil we can find stability, comfort, and ceremony.


Severn Cullis-Suzuki holds a BSc in Biology from Yale University, an MSc in Ethnoecology from the University of Victoria, and is currently a Vanier and Public Scholar PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, studying the revitalization of the Haida language. She lives on Haida Gwaii with her husband G̱udt’aawt’is Judson Brown and their sons Ganhlaans and Tiisaan.