It was a 10-day course, and it only scratched the surface. But when 40 residents of the Haida Gwaii community of Skidegate completed a short Haida language course one summer day in 1998, it was cause for a parade through the town's main streets, led by a fire truck no less, complete with wailing sirens and flashing lights. The residents were celebrating the first steps toward the re-birth of their language — a language many had given up for dead following years of residential schools, cultural suppression and waning interest among the community's youth.
"We'd never been so happy," says Pearle Pearson, 80, a fluent Haida speaker. "We danced through the village and then that night we had a community feast and all the students stood up and spoke in Haida."
That summer, John Medicine Horse Kelly, the local school board's First Nations language coordinator, teamed with Wendy Campbell, a curriculum developer, to launch a language renewal effort that included posters telling people they could learn Haida in 10 days. The approach was controversial, but the class jump-started a rush to save the language while its few elderly speakers are alive.
"It's a scary thing because we only have about 30 people who can speak fairly good Haida and we figure it takes at least 100 to keep a language going," says John Williams, 85.
Though the initial 10-day course didn't increase the number of fluent Haida speakers, it evolved into a program for elders, including Williams, who spend up to 25 hours each week building a glossary that currently holds some 13,000 Haida words. The program, called the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP), aims to preserve the language and distinguish its various dialects. Its work has been complied into 68 lesson plans that are available to Haida Gwaii schools.
"We document words as the elders remember them," says Diane Brown, who runs the SHIP program and at 59 is the youngest of the fluent Haida speakers. "Like today, we got a word that we haven't had. Today we got a new word for 'shy.'"
Recently, a group of schoolchildren have begun taking language courses through SHIP. The elders are watching their progress closely.
"It feels wonderful because it makes you think there is hope," says Brown. "The young ones are just beginning, but they are getting better and their pronunciation is getting better."
Many of the elders learned Haida in their youth and have troubling stories of friends and relatives who emerged from childhood unable to speak their native tongue.
"My late husband was sent to a residential school when he was seven years old," says Pearson. "Of course, the language was not allowed to be spoken, so he could not understand Haida by the time he came back at 16."
Pearson learned Haida from her grandmother. Brown learned it from her mother — and learned to speak it fluently though all her friends spoke English. Williams picked up the language by speaking with the elders who frequented his father's store.
"Everyone in Skidegate speaking their language — that is what we hope for," says Pearson. "They say language is the backbone of a community and I think if we can do this it will make everyone very proud."