The flash of human spirit

By Leslie Campbell, December 2010

Language is the vehicle by which the soul of a culture comes into the world.

This month’s feature on First Nations languages by Katherine Gordon brought to mind an interview I conducted back in 2005 with cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. 

He told me that when I was born, 6,000 languages were spoken in the world, but since half of those aren’t being taught anymore, they are effectively dying. “Within a generation or two,” said Davis, “half of humanity’s intellectual, spiritual and social legacy will be lost.”

That’s because, as Davis so eloquently explained: “language is not just vocabulary and grammar. It’s the flash of human spirit, it’s the vehicle by which the soul of a culture comes into the world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a sort of watershed of thought, an ecosystem of possibilities.”

Yes, Davis really talks like that, even without notes. That ability, along with his ideas, earned him the prestigious task of delivering the Massey Lectures last year. (He’s also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and the author of a dozen books.)

“Losing one’s language is the beginning of a slippery slope towards assimilation and acculturation and, in some sense, annihilation,” he told me.

Whether the aim of our forefathers, in fashioning the residential school sytem, was assimilation or annihilation of First Nations culture, I don’t know. But, as Katherine Gordon and her interview subjects illustrate, the resulting loss of language—and hence vital culture—has resulted in high rates of not completing high school, unemployment, addiction, crime, and suicide.

In addition, because cultures are “unique expressions of the human imagination,” as Davis puts it, when we lose them, we lose humanity’s repertoire for dealing with the challenges that confront us.

Cultural diversity, carried by language, in other words, gives us more scope, more ways to understand and solve our problems. Its benefits run parallel to those of biodiversity: both provide us, in their separate spheres, with a greater palette to draw from and hence greater resiliency, vibrancy and strength.

“[I]f we have any loyalty to ourselves as a species,” said Davis, “how could we possibly want to diminish the range of human responses to the challenges of being alive?”

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Last summer, on a visit to Alert Bay, I was able to witness firsthand the growing movement among BC’s First Nations to keep their languages alive. David and I serendipitously attended an event at the local T’lisala’gilakw School celebrating the children’s learning of the Kwak’wala language, that of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations. We plunked ourselves down in the beautiful school gym amidst proud parents, aunties, uncles and teachers, and watched with delight as children were flashed cards with pictures on them; they had to come up with the Kwak’wala word for the object pictured. At one point the teachers, Pewi Alfred and Donna Cranmer, showed us a chart with pictures of close to 400 people who had joined the “Kwak’wala Challenge” by each logging an hour of speaking their language.

My experience in Alert Bay, and Katherine’s in other First Nation communities, are cause for some optimism. Still, time is of the essence: of the five percent of First Nations people in the province who remain fluent in BC’s 32 indigenous languages, most are over 65.

Wade Davis told me the way to rejuvenate a language is to write it down: “The art of codifying these languages is not that expensive.” As you’ll read in our feature report, codification and language revitalization are happening in BC, but government funding is exceedingly low.

Canada tried—with much success—to extinguish native languages in the past, but now we have a chance and an obligation to right that wrong, by supporting First Nations’ efforts to regain their languages—and urging our government to do likewise. 

As Wade Davis says: “True peace and security for the 21st century will only come about when we find a way to address the underlying issues of disparity, dislocation and dispossession that have provoked the madness of our age. What we desperately need is a global acknowledgement of the fact that no people and no nation can truly prosper unless the bounty of our collective ingenuity and opportunities are available and accessible to all.”

Editor Leslie Campbell wishes all Focus readers a holiday season full of peace, joy and the nurturing of children and cultural traditions.