At 60 years old Gary Russ decided it was time to learn his native language. Hes been attending Skidegate Haida Immersion classes for the last three years. Canadian Geographic caught up with Russ to learn about his experience.
Canadian Geographic: Why did you decide to start learning Haida?
Gary Russ: Its something Ive wanted to do all my life. I had the time and the opportunity presented itself.
Can Geo: How old were you when you started to learn?
G.R.: Ive been attending classes off and on for the last three years. I was 60 when I started. The opportunity was never there before because I was always too busy.
Can Geo: Growing up were you ever exposed to the language?
G.R.: Yes. My grandmother used to talk Haida to me all the time. I got her to repeat words over and over again. Then she'd translate them into English. I should have learned more than I did, but you know how things are when you're young. My parents spoke Haida too, but the only time they used it was when they didn't want us kids to know what they were talking about. You have to also remember that speaking our language was frowned upon by the authorities.
Can Geo: What was it like knowing that your native tongue was frowned upon?
G.R.: When you're young, you're not really aware of these things. You just go through life and whatever the boss says, you do.
Can Geo: What do you learn in your Haida language classes?
G.R. We get taught words and phrases during the day and we have spelling bees. I've never really been part of the process that teaches you sentence structure. I'm not in any kind of hurry. It's taken me 63 years to get to this point and there's no rush as far as I'm concerned.
Can Geo: Are you able to speak simple phrases now?
G.R.: To a certain degree. You get taught so much and some days I'd be driving around pronouncing a word and not really knowing what I was talking about. It wasn't until I got back to school that I realized what I was saying. Subconsciously, I think it's been banged into my brain. Everything outside the classroom revolves around English though, so it's hard to practice when I'm not in class.
Can Geo: Has it been a difficult language to learn?
G.R.: It certainly has. The intricacies and the guttural sounds are pretty hard. It's very difficult getting all the sounds proper.
Can Geo: At 63, what is it like to be back in the classroom?
G.R.: It's just a great comradeship, sitting around listening and learning from the elders. Growing up, I didn't really have much to do with them and then all of a sudden we're in a classroom together and there's a good relationship. It's fostered a lot more togetherness in the community.