The Ayajuthem language radiates across territory

·8 min read

The word Gɩǰɛ..gih’jeh radiates across airwaves through deep forests, over waters, into intricate fjords and snowy mountain tops into the lush and vibrant area of Ayajuthem-speaking territory.

“Gɩǰɛ..gih’jeh means the land,” says Norman Francis, as a part of the ‘Ayajuthem Word of The Day’ on The Raven. The station is operated by not-for-profit Aupe Cultural Enhancement Society. Located on Homalco First Nation land, holding a Type B Indigenous license.

The radio station airs from Campbell River. It ranges south to the Comox Valley, east to Powell River, and north to the rest of upper Vancouver Island.

The rest of the world can access the episodes online.

“We are broadcasting from Homalco Territory. If you are listening to this, it means you are living in Ayajuthem territory,” the speaker says at the beginning of every ‘Word of The Day’ segment.

The Ayajuthem language belongs to the Homalco, Klahoose, K’omoks and Tla’amin Nations.

Koosen, Devin Pielle of Tla’amin First Nation, is a third generation Ayajuthem language teacher. Ayajuthem is a Coast Salish dialect. Tla’amin shares it in common with a small group of sister nations in the north Salish Sea.

Koosen has been teaching the language for nine years and uses a variety of tools in her work. Additional to classroom instruction, she’s been using the radio to share her dialect to a growing audience.

The Raven, FM 100.7 brings Ayajuthem language to communities’ ears three times a day. Starting January 11, the ‘Word of the Day’ single word clips will be expanded. Listeners will next learn longer “Phrase of the Day” clips.

The Raven is a country music station based in Campbell River, on Homalco First Nation Territory.

Unlike earlier community radio language projects Koosen has worked for other stations, she says this project is Indigenizing mainstream radio.

Koosen says the radio station’s broadcasting range is huge, stretching across their collective territory. The Raven reaches from K’omoks Territory in the Comox Valley to Tla’amin and Klahoose Nations in Johnstone Strait.

The next phase, ‘Phrase of the Day,’ is a community collaboration. It aims for representation from each of the sister nations who share the dialect.

Three team members include Brenda Hanson, with ties to Klahoose and Homalco First Nations, and Malachai Joseph, who’s from Homalco. Koosen is from Tla’amin, but also has ties to Klahoose, and outreach is in the works to include K’omoks voices. The team is connected to all of the sister nations through family ties, says Koosen.

“Our teacher’s name is Jean Sarrazin and we’ve been working together for a couple months now,” Koosen says. “It’s cool to be able to connect with my sistering nations on this level, too.”

“We’ve started sharing speakers from Homalco. We’re slowly making a shift in sharing speakers from Klahoose. Eventually we’ll share speakers from Tla’amin and K’omoks,” explains Koosen.

“It’s important because it’s collectively on our traditional territory.”

“I like decolonizing the airwaves and it’s really staking our airwaves on our traditional territory,” she says.

“Lots of our jeh-jehs (relatives) have been tuning in and it’s so cool,” says Koosen. “It’s cool that our languages are on what might be considered mainstream radio. A lot of my non-indigenous friends are saying that they’re tuning in and loving it too.”

“No matter who you are and whoever’s territory you’ve settled in, you can learn something in their language. As a sign of respect,” says Koosen. It’s a sign of respect because it acknowledges the people of the land. “Everyone should be learning an indigenous language in some capacity.”

Originally, Klahoose, Tla’amin, Homalco and K’omoks were all one nation. This was before the Canadian government put them onto reservations, as hereditary chief Norman Harry explains.

The radio program has reignited these connections and bonds, she says, reconnecting people to other language and culture learners.

“You’re not judging someone for their ability to enunciate or their ability not to enunciate. It’s building a community of just relearning who we are,” she says.

“I’ve heard from listeners that they just feel connected. For that one minute, sporadically throughout the day, and that’s what’s important,” says Koosen.

First Nations Health Authority developed a First Nations Perspective on Health and Wellness and includes language as promoting wellness.

“Working to revitalize our languages is one of the most important and fruitful ways to promote healthy and self-determining Nations, communities and people,” a FNHA study says.

“If you can speak your language, then you have a stronger sense of who you are. Where you come from. And that’s the beginning of holistic health and holistic healing,” says Koosen.

FNHA describes how language promotes wellness: “Traditional culture and language were described as one and the same, and the blueprint for survival and health in First Nations’ self-determination.”

Increased awareness around Indigenous languages, includes preservation and reclamation work.

“Re-learning the language is so important because our ancestors fought, literally fought, survived, to have what we have now,” Koosen says. “And it would be tragic if it died in our generation. And it’s just so vital to our identity. Our connection to not just the land, but to each other as well.”

Koosen describes a powerful moment while she was on the First Peoples’ Cultural Council’s advisory (FPCC) committee. She was on the committee for two years in 2017-18. Koosen was at a press conference listening to a young woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation share her experience with the Language Mentor-Apprentice program. This is a special program that provides a year of one-on-one immersive learning with a fluent speaker.

“Gisele Martin, Nuu-chah-nulth, said ‘relearning my language was like seeing the world in color for the first time,’” recalls Koosen.

“That stuck with me. When you’re learning your language, you learn how to view the world differently. You learn so much about yourself, so much about your family. It’s almost impossible to talk about language and then not talk about the people you spoke to.”

Recalling language learnings from relations is a conversation that remembers the beautiful people who were here before us, says Koosen.

One way language can express a cultural worldview is through vocabulary itself. Koosen gives an example of the Ayajuthem word for relative, ‘jeh-jeh,’ also the word for ‘tree.’

“For us, the trees are our relatives,” she says. “That’s different from the way we have been taught, [in English].”

“I’m a third generation ‘Mrs. Pielle,’” Koosen posted on Facebook. There was a sense of pride in the statement, and also intergenerational connection. Koosen was reaching out to her neighbours, asking, “What did the original Mrs. Pielle teach you?”

Koosen teaches children at Tla’amin Child Development Resource Center, and in Powell River at Assumption Catholic school. Her students range from two year-olds, up to grade seven and eight. She says one highlight of the job is seeing their excitement, when they arrive to learn the language with her.

“They’re so open to singing, which is such an amazing way to learn. Everyone knows how to say “I love you” now, because we learned the ‘I love you’ song,” she says.

Koosen knows the children’s parents. She is working towards a ripple effect, where families are learning the language as children bring it home.

She says she sees these children bringing the language forward, navigating a future world.

“If they can bring forth the values that come from our language. And the values that come from our teachings,” says Koosen. “They’ll be that much better for it, and they’ll be grounded individuals. They’ll know who they are, they’ll know where they come from. And those are the beginning steps to holistic health and holistic wellbeing.”

Working and learning from Elders is the other half of Koosen’s role as a language teacher. This includes Elders from previous generations, in an archival project she is working on.

“Just being with the elders and listening to stories is everything,” she says. “You’re listening to a legacy. You’re listening to something that has been spoken forever here.”

As a part of the project, Koosen is digitizing archival recordings and cassette tapes, with FPCC funding.

“Some of them are from the ’70s. Just hearing things being recorded in the ’70s, that people still use today is so cool,” she says.

A special connection exists between language speakers and the land, says Koosen.

“It’s a connection to who we are and a connection to this land. Nobody else has that except us on this land, specifically, right. And other Indigenous people have it on their land, but this is ours.”

Koosen’s journey has evolved, and will continue to grow into places language can strengthen and bloom. She says a reward for her growing audience is the feedback she receives.

Koosen says language learning sparks happiness and joy.

“There’s just so much happiness that comes and so much laughter that comes with learning the language. And Indigenous people are pretty well known for laughing. Laughing is medicine for us,” she says.

Language learning helps Indigenous people to regain power and identity, while making family proud, she says.

“Nobody wants it to go to sleep in our generation, right. Nobody wants that. And I think people are starting to realize that now, and it’s powerful. And I’m so happy that I get to just be a part of it, and it makes me hopeful.”

Odette Auger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse