Students file into the classroom early. They set their textbooks in front of them and laugh with each other from inside the Nisga’a Hall.
Project Prince Rupert Urban Nisga’a Language Initiative is well underway with 20 students and Verna Williams, their teacher who travels from New Aiyansh to teach Level 1 of the program.
The class reached capacity at 20 students, and the wait list was so full that they decided to do another course in January.
Hazel Stewart sits in the back corner, quiet at first, her face lights up when asked about the program being offered to Nisga’a members in Prince Rupert.
“I like to learn. I know the language. I’ve taken classes before but when I heard that Verna was teaching I thought, I’m coming back,” Stewart said, wearing a smile.
She grew up in the city but her family is from New Aiyansh where she learned the language from her grandmother. Since she started taking Nisga’a classes in September, she has the confidence to speak in public.
“When I was younger I was too shy. When I went along in years taking these classes, I learned confidence to speak it to my people,” she said.
|Hazel Stewart is taking Nisga’a classes to build her confidence and speak the language in public. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
Of the many Indigenous languages that are spoken in Prince Rupert homes, 170 people speak Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language, and 55 people speak Nisga’a, as stated in the 2016 Statistics Canada census.
There are more than 1,500 Nisga’a members living in Prince Rupert, and approximately 127 of them are elders, Sabrina Clifton, the program manager at the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society, said.
“Although they can understand the language they’re still trying to learn because they haven’t been speaking it very often,” Clifton said.
The society has been trying to bring in a language course for a long time, but all the stars had to align to make it happen. This year, they received a grant from First Peoples’ Cultural Council to fund the program, and they finally connected with Williams to teach the course.
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Williams, who has been teaching the language since 1978, worked for the University of Northern British Columbia in the Nass Valley, and after she retired in 2010, she never stopped.
She drives three hours to teach an eager group of adult students in Prince Rupert on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
“They understand it but they’re afraid to speak it and as our elders go I think we are losing our language, some parts of our language, the old words especially,” Williams said.
She plans to teach the Level 1 course again from January until March, and a level 2 course later on in 2018. The society is applying for a grant to continue its language programming into next spring.
There will also be a feasting and language workshop on Thursdays starting next year. Students are already learning how to introduce themselves and how to greet people and what to say in the feast hall.
“There’s more interest now I think because they want to use it for their own speaking,” Williams said.
Clifton is one of the students. As program manager for the Nisga’a Hall she’s encouraging members from the youth group to take up the language course in January. Students are taught Sm’algyax in the school district, but wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn Nisga’a unless they came to one of Williams’ classes.
|Shelia Adams decided to relearn Nisga’a when she heard Verna Williams would be teaching the course at the Nisga’a Hall. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
In the front of the classroom sits Sheila Adams. She can’t pin her favourite part of relearning the language. She said she loves all of it, family, numbers, colours and especially her teacher’s stories from way back when.
“I wanted to relearn the language. I grew up hearing it a lot but I don’t speak it so it’s good taking the class with Verna and these are her books,” Adams said, holding up the workbook created by Williams’ daughter.
Students find the guttural sounds and the Nisga’a alphabet to be the most challenging, but Williams has them repeat after her until they nail it. Last week, they opened the class with a song, which they sang loud with confidence and a few giggles.
“They’re a fun bunch of students to be with,” Williams said.