Lindsay Lewis

English/ ESL consultant: Word worker, writer, teacher, mentor and poet. Author of This Won’t Hurt a Bit! on writing clear content.

Kwak’wala at the Umista Center, Alert Bay

Kwak’wala in Alert Bay.

I highly recommend a trip up to the most sacred and beautiful place in British Columbia, Alert Bay, home to several first nations. While there this summer, I had the honour of sitting in on a Kwak’wala lesson at the Umista Cultural Center. This lesson is given by the local elders in order to preserve their language. As one of them stated so succinctly, we don’t want English to be our cultural reference point- meaning they speak their language to learn it, to absorb it and to get other first nations speaking it again. I understand their point of view- many words cannot be “translated” and it is always best to try to learn words and phrases. They are working hard to create sheets and materials and don’t want these being taken and used by another institution. I don’t blame them a bit. I learned a few words and phrases- but the one which really struck me was the one which means “Circle of Life” but is also associated with the rings of a Cedar tree. This was so beautiful and meaningful to me as a linguist.

The Umista Cultural center has many of the beautiful pieces stolen from the first Nations. Despite the abuse they suffered, the women teaching the program are strong, funny , proud and kind. They laugh from the belly and exude a warmth and joy absent in many cultures. I felt very privileged to be part of this small circle of language learner, and will be studying it in the summers when I can go to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island.

What does it sound like? It reminded me a bit of wind rushing through the leaves of trees and the odd glottal sound one might hear from a Raven. It’s beautiful, hypnotizing, and amazing. I am so sorry that the first nations could not speak their language and were punished. However, they are well on their way of revitalizing an incredibly rich and lovely culture. All the power to them!

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