Unspoken messages, unexplored paths

Culture and language are resilient and evolving and I think this is a journey worth continuing to learn from.

By Michelle Washington

As Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in British Columbia celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, it is important to reflect on where we have been, and to use those learnings to create a path to where we are going.

It is also a good time to share how this work has touched visitors from around the world, as we look forward to the next two years of its run.

Inspired by a new global focus on the importance of intangible heritage, and the declaration of B.C. as one of the world’s five language hotspots for linguistic diversity, the Royal B..C Museum embarked on a partnership with First Peoples’ Cultural Council to build a new exhibition.

The Royal B.C. Museum provided a wonderful space to host the work of 34 language groups and language and cultural advisors, writers, producers and artists, who generously shared content from their unique perspectives.

This idea came from the realization that First Nations are the experts in their teachings and protocols. This knowledge comes from generations of deeply personal understanding of their cultures and territories, something that cannot be replicated.

In the quest to create a powerful, engaging experience for our visitors, we chose the stories carefully. It was all about balancing representation, and finding a way to make people understand we are still here and we are still connected to our culture and our territory. We are not just artifacts to be studied or objects to be collected. Our stories have remained unspoken for too long.

During the build of this exhibition, a great Songhees elder told me “protocols have become something people write on an agenda as a formality. They are really teachings passed down about our responsibility to each other and how we respect the customs of the Nation whose territory we do business on. It is our responsibility to teach our young ones to respect this teaching wherever their spirit carries them.”

We wanted visitors to connect with this message and find similarities in their own experience; to create a dialogue and not be afraid to ask honest questions of each other. Many visitors have shared they were initially drawn here by other exhibitions, but ended up loving Our Living Languages the most.

Some have seen for the first time what the current political and cultural realities are for First Nations beyond the headlines. Many school groups have come specifically to see the exhibition to assist in their curriculum delivery. Our Living Languages has been described as a template for partnership.

As this country struggles with how to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and how that has shaped the present reality – what will change in our path towards a mutually respectful shared future?

Museums have a large role in creating accessible spaces for awareness, real connections and opportunities to rethink what we know. Culture and language are resilient and evolving and I think this is a journey worth continuing to learn from.

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Emawheega Siemthlut (Michelle Washington) was the Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in B.C. exhibition Manager for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.