New book and exhibition looks at retaining the Haida language

The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate is publishing the first book on the Haida language and the last of its fluent speakers as part of a larger exhibition on the subject.

The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate is publishing the first book on the Haida language and the last of its fluent speakers as part of a larger exhibition on the subject.

The hope is that the exhibition will eventually go on tour across the country, and help persuade younger members of the Haida First Nation to make a serious effort to reinvigorate an otherwise dying language. According to the book’s author, Nika Collison, the idea for the book and subsequently the exhibition came when a photographer, Farah Nosh, began taking portraits of the last fluent speakers of the Haida language, of which there are less than 40 and they are all over 75-years-old.

“I was working on a book called Raven Travelling with an editor, and we talked about how important the Haida language was and he was the one said we should really do a book. And I said ‘really? Do you think anyone would care?’ And he said ‘Yes, people will care,’” says Collison.

Collison began working on a book containing biographies on the surviving fluent speakers along with stories about their relationship with the language back in the days when speaking it was actively discouraged.

“These are the people who were raised being told through colonization that being Haida wasn’t good, that speaking your language was bad – being made to feel second-class. But we’re not second-class, we’re first-class, and that’s how these people need to be celebrated,” says Collison.

Also in the book are explanations of the three different dialects and some simple starting material for those looking to learn it. Collison says she only knew a few words when she first started work on her book, but as she worked on it her understanding of the language improved, but so did her understanding of what is still causing the language to die out.

“After working on this book it became so much clearer what had happened in our history. It wasn’t just an intellectual understanding anymore. I don’t mean to sound rude, but it became apparent how much of Canada’s colonial regime is still alive today,” says Collison.

Collison, the museum and Fara Nosh the photographer have come together to create an exhibition on the Haida language which will be premiering at the Museum in Skidegate on July 29.