By Michelle Washington
Ahjechwut. My name is Siemthlut (Michelle Washington). I come from the Tla’amin (Sliammon) Nation.
I was the language exhibition manager for content gathering for Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in B.C., a three-year exhibition on now at the Royal B.C. Museum.
This partnership between the Royal B.C. Museum and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, explores the 34 First Nations languages found in B.C., looking at the past, present and future of each through interactive and multi-sensory experiences.
Language champions in communities throughout B.C. are behind this exhibition. They were involved in the development process, collected all of the data, recordings, songs, greetings, audio/visual productions, text and shared hundreds of fascinating and moving stories of language revitalization over generations that shaped the narrative of the exhibition.
For many of the language families, the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean have been our highway and trade connector for thousands of years. Many more nations were connected by a myriad of rivers, inlets and trade trails through mountain ranges and desert regions.
The varied landscape and seasons of our territories have shaped our culture and our languages over millennia.
Our language is not just about words, it connects us to our spirituality and everything in our territory.
The true meaning of words is lost unless you have people who are rooted in the culture and teachings to describe the context. Being knowledgeable about the teachings, the people and the land you come from is part of life-long learning.
My elders always said that “everyone has a different path to walk, but it is never too late to return to the teachings and to hear the ancestral messages left to us.”
One of the main goals of the exhibition was to promote understanding of First Nations cultures and bring attention to the status of language. This was done through consultation with many knowledge keepers with important messages that represented their family, their community and their larger language groups.
These are not “dead languages.” There is an inter-generational resurgence of culture and language witnessed by an increase of more than 3,000 semi-fluent speakers since the 2010 Status of Language Report.
Throughout the exhibition development process the large variety of local and international audiences of all ages and languages was always top of mind. I have witnessed the visitors’ experience firsthand. People are finding deep and sometimes emotional meaning with different elements of the exhibition. Some visitor’s own international languages are endangered. This exhibition has brought them back to thinking about what they can do to revitalize them in their own life and make that connection to their past.
Partnerships like this one are about so much more than a signed document to do business; to First Nations people, they are about a social responsibility to each other to create sustainable change for the better.
Over the past decade, I have seen our culture being recognized and included in education, health, business, governance, tourism and many other sectors. It is an important shift that has taken far too long. We have a long way to go but, like our languages, it is never too late.
We want to leave the next generation a clear message: Through all the traumatic changes that our ancestors have faced we are still here, we can make a difference and it is up to us now to take care of their gifts.
Siemthlut (Michelle Washington) is the cultural program coordinator at the Royal B.C. Museum.