School project integrates Kwak̓wala language and culture

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Student Tyrone George (left) and Elder Richard George love their Kwak’wala key phrase T-shirts produced by Eke-Me-Xi Learning Centre students as part of the school’s language integration project.

By Trish Weatherall

Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper May 25, 2018

A school project has brought generations together to incorporate the local First Nations language into everyday school life.

Eke Me-Xi Learning Centre’s Wiga Om (a Kwak̓wala expression meaning ‘let’s start now’) project focused on increasing the visibility of the Kwak̓wala language at school and integrating Kwak̓wala and traditional knowledge across the curriculum.

“The visibility of a language, or ‘linguistic landscape,’ is a key indicator of language vitality,” said Eke-Me-Xi Principal Sheila McGrath. “Research suggests that greater usage of a language on signs throughout the community provides a positive support for language use throughout school’s communities.”

To increase the linguistic landscape, students designed T-shirts with Kwak’wala key phrases, that students and staff at Eke-Me-Xi wear with pride. Key phrases on the shirts include: Hiłumala (to make things right), mayaxala (be respectful), ix noke (gratitude), ga̱w̓alap̓a (help one another), ik’aḵela (feel good – often used to say goodbye, similar to ‘have a great day!’).

Eke-Me-Xi linguist Peter Wilson, and teacher Teniel Hunt, along with assistance from Elder TK Henderson helped lead the students through the project.

More than just a t-shirt campaign, the intergenerational connections provided an ongoing link to local language and traditions. Local Elders ensured accuracy of pronunciation and spelling, and recorded words and phrases for students to study. Students had several lunch time meetings with Elders to develop and play games using both written and oral Kwak̓wala phrases including Sound and Symbol Bingo; a shopping game; Rock, Paper, Scissors (t̓isam, gwagwa’ł, k̓a̱bayu), and other board and online games.

Students also practiced their Kwak̓wala phrases on a clamming and food gathering trip to Pa’as, a traditional settlement area which is also referred to as Blunden Harbour.

Eke-Me-Xi is also working with the nearby Gwa’Sala-Nakwaxda’xw Elementary School, the Band Council, and Elders, to develop and implement an integrated curriculum with focus on traditional Gwa’sa̱la-N̓ak̓waxda’x̱w clamming activities and language. In class, curriculum for Grades 8 and 9 Science, Grade 10 Foods, and Grades 11 and 12 Ecology 11 now incorporate Kwak̓wala words and phrases, and Grade 11 Introduction to Kwak̓wala integrates daily activities with writing, listening, and speaking.

Throughout the school day, students and staff have begun regular use of Kwak̓wala welcoming language (w̓iksas, ixm̓as, gilakasl̓a, wa’xa) and daily weather updates for use and display.

A password protected Blog provides daily Kwak̓wala activities for students, parents, and the community and also includes written and audio materials.

An Elders resource group has been established to assist staff in examining school materials to ensure accuracy of Kwak̓wala / Bak̓wa̱mk̓ala languages, traditional knowledge, and developing future activities that will connect Elders and students.

“This has been one of my favourite projects,” said McGrath. “Seeing the pride in people wearing the T-shirts – it was a great medium for generating conversation in Kwak̓wala, and of course the lunches and games with Elders are always fun too!”

McGrath said the project was initiated following surveys conducted by the school with students, staff, and parents between 2015 and 2017 which indicated interest in learning key Kwak̓wala phrases to integrate throughout the school curriculum. These surveys are supported by a larger Aboriginal Programs survey.

“In Aboriginal Programs most recent survey (2016-17), the Kwakwak̓a̱w̓akw community have shared their voice and it is loud and clear that they hope to see more culture and language implemented into the current curriculum,” said Irene Isaac, District Principal Aboriginal Programs, in a letter of support for the Wiga Om project. “This First Nations Literacy project provides a unique opportunity for local Kwakwak̓a̱w̓akw knowledge to be integrated into the district through the involvement of our fluent Kwak̓wala speakers.”

The Wiga Om project was the catalyst for the school’s ongoing integration of Kwak̓wala into the curriculum.

Beyond the linguistics, students are connecting to pride in their roots.

“I believe that culture and language programs such as this help build self-esteem, and a sense of cultural pride in our youth and this benefits their overall success in school and life,” said Isaac. “It also provides opportunities to create more speakers in our community and hopefully sparks interests in our young ones to carry on our traditional practices. We are at a point now where language revitalization is at the top of our priorities and is vital to overall educational, social and cultural success of our nations.”

The Wiga Om project was sponsored by Eke-Me-Xi Learning Centre and a Literacy Now grant from the Mount Waddington Family Literacy Society.