Jesse Recalma is a member of the Qualicum First Nation involved in preserving and revitalizing traditional languages. (Emily Vance photo)

‘Breathing new life’ into language, culture in the Qualicum First Nation and beyond

‘Every language is a worldview’

Languages have the power to shape worldviews – and community efforts are underway to preserve and revitalize two of the traditional languages spoken in the Parksville-Qualicum Beach area since time immemorial.

Mat Andreatta and Jesse Recalma are two of the Qualicum First Nation members working to preserve culture through language. They both work with the Pentlach language, and Recalma teaches Hulq’umi’num to students in School District 69.

Andreatta says the experience has been a rewarding one. Being able to share traditional language with his family is something that he’s never experienced before.

“It’s such an integral piece. Every language is a worldview. … We’re breathing new life into this worldview that we did have at some point, and can still have. And I think these worldviews also have a lot of answers to a lot of the problems the world’s facing now, too,” said Andreatta.

“It’s really powerful. Really good medicine, because it’s also just us gathering, and talking and sharing knowledge, and understandings and food like we’ve done forever.”

READ MORE: Touring exhibit from Royal B.C. Museum highlights First Nations languages

Andreatta had originally done a year-long project on the Pentlach language in his first year of studies at UBC, but became discouraged with the constant label of ‘extinct’ being attached to the language.

“Most of what I found was just pretty bleak. The constant label of extinct being attached to the language and thus, by extension, ourselves,” said Andreatta.

He returned to study it in his final year of university and things started to fall into place.

“All of a sudden I just started turning over documents and documents of the vocabulary at different institutions, and kind of being turned on to more sources and resources,” said Andreatta.

When he brought up revitalization with Qualicum First Nation Chief Michael Recalma, the larger community aspect of the project began to take shape.

“He had been having a really similar dream of the language being brought back, but he didn’t know I was doing the work at the same time. From there, he worked really hard, and talked to a lot of the right people, and we got funding. This past April, we were able to start some more official community work,” said Andreatta.

In its heyday, Andreatta says Pentlach was spoken from just north of Parksville to Cape Lazo in the Comox Valley, and further inland. The area takes its name from the Pentlach language: Qualicum means ‘where the dog salmon run.’

READ MORE: The world’s Indigenous speakers gather in B.C.’s capital to revitalize languages

Andreatta has since been working alongside Chief Recalma and other community members, as well as linguists from UBC and UVic and Sarah Quinn with the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

“We’re really just trying to lay the groundwork. This is the first phase. It’s a big project, and we’re a small but growing team, but there’s a lot to be done,” said Andreatta.

Andreatta says that since there are no fluent speakers, they’ve been working with primary source written documents to create an orthography, or spelling system through textural resources. They also look to other neighbouring dialects for pronunciations and comparative vocabularies.

Recalma has been doing similar work with Hulq’umi’num, and sharing it with students from kindergarten to Grade 7.

Hulq’umi’num was traditionally spoken from the Qualicum-Bowser region down south to the Malahat. The last fluent speaker of Hulq’umi’num passed away in the 1940s, and Recalma was able to learn bits and pieces from relatives while growing up in the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) Nation.

Recalma has been active in the school district in teaching various topics about First Nations culture since he was a student himself, and has been spurred towards language revitalization in the past couple years when he realized he didn’t want to be part of a generation that watched his ancestors’ traditional language disappear.

READ MORE: Province invests $50M to save B.C.’s 34 Indigenous languages

“Sort of recognizing that I’ve got a bit of an obligation to do what I can to help keep it alive, keep it going. There’s not a lot of people out there who are willing to do that, they’re not willing to really put as much work in. Because it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of work, and it doesn’t often come with a big payout,” said Recalma.

Though Recalma says he doesn’t expect to become a millionaire or publish papers on the subject, it’s important and necessary work to preserve a worldview distinct to the peoples who shared the language.

“It’s something that I would look at now, something much more practical than just writing a thesis. It’s actually doing groundwork on keeping both culture and language alive, because our culture exists through our language, and our language exists through our culture,” said Recalma.

The two are part of a much larger cultural resurgence of Indigenous peoples working to re-establish cultural practices in the era of reconciliation. Across B.C., communities are increasingly taking up the mantle of language preservation, helped along by $50 million worth of provincial government funding that came down the pipe in 2018. It’s an effort that happens to coincide with the United Nation’s declaration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Andreatta says he grew up feeling an absence of cultural knowledge in his own life, and wants to ensure that no one else has to grow up feeling that way.

“It’s also a big assertion to say that we’re still here. To refuse that label that we find next to the Pentlach name in our books, of extinct. A lot of the youths, we’re done with that. And our elders are giving us the opportunity to pick that back up, and giving us the space and the resources to do so. And we’re going to keep doing it. So it’s pretty exciting,” said Andreatta.

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