Growing up, Verna Williams spoke Nisga’a without knowing that one day she would be fighting to keep it alive.
It was the language that held her childhood memories, the one that connected her to an identity. Its sounds carried out her thoughts and emotions but she was barred from expressing it when she was taken away to a residential school.
Her mother, who embodied what it meant to be Nisga’a, also passed away during her younger years and left her grasping onto those ancient words to keep her spirit alive. When Williams would come home for the summer, she indulged in the language as her aunt strove to make up for months of lost teachings — only to return to a place where she had to push it all away into the corner of her mind.
“To me, Nisga’a is beautiful… it’s gentle, ” Williams says. “Little did I know that I would be sent away… but I remember a lot, I could picture it all.”
When Williams finally returned to the Nass Valley as an adult, she realized how quickly the language was disappearing. Just a short time ago, children had run around playing games in Nisga’a but now English was their narrative. They no longer spoke to one another in their mother tongue, forgetting the words that had kept their ancestors together for centuries.
She says the big shift happened when her village moved across the river. She had grown up in Old Aiyansh, which was only accessible by boat as it was on the other side of the Nass River. It was an enriching place to carry out their culture as there were no roads to distract them away, but when flooding damaged their village, they had to rebuilt elsewhere and that dramatically changed their community.
With the move came modernization and a push to abandon tradition. Many of them had been punished for being Nisga’a so they wanted to “normalize” their lives with what the other world convinced them they needed. Cultural practices were replaced with technology and the language was a reminder of a past they wanted to leave behind.
“Some people speak it, but they’re afraid to. They’re called silent speakers, they understand but won’t talk,” Williams says. “They’re just used to speaking English, even myself.”
But the Nisga’a language was unforgettable for Williams, and for her husband as well. Despite some resistance, they would try to speak it at home. She’d write down words, dictating their pronunciation onto paper to keep the vocabulary from slipping away.
Then years later, her phone rang. Nisga’a language classes were going to be taught but they needed a teacher. Although she had never been in front of a classroom before, she had to figure out a way to convince youth of its importance.
“It was terrifying to me… the home teacher had to stay when I was teaching, my knees were knocking,” says Williams with a laugh. “I had no clue at first and I was afraid of these big kids but finally after a while, I started to relax and do my own thing.”
Naturally, Williams felt the language and her students felt it too. They played games and sang songs in Nisga’a, celebrated with feasts, making each other laugh and held meaningful conversations. But when they would all go home, their parents could not respond to them or understand their joy which caused a pang of separation between families.
When a job posting at UNBC opened up to teach Nisga’a to adults, Williams took it in a heartbeat. Teaching it by then for 15 years, she saw how empowering it was for her people to learn it and she wanted the older generation to experience it as well. Soon after, she took on other adult language classes in Terrace, Prince Rupert, throughout the Nass Valley and even Vancouver.
She loved teaching it but carried the weight of the sadness of all those struggling to retain it. She listened to their survival stories, their addiction stories, their stories of trying to find themselves. Students would break down in tears when presenting in Nisga’a as they were reconnecting to something raw inside themselves.
“To me, they were crying for help because they don’t know their culture or they don’t have anyone to talk to,” Williams says. “Some were so emotional because they thought they would never speak it.”
Travelling weekly to deliver these courses, Williams says her health took a toll with all that responsibility in 2014. By that point, most of the elders in her community either passed away or kept to themselves and she felt alone with her husband trying to keep the language alive.
“I ended up in the hospital with anxiety attacks because of all of that,” she says. “I say to others, why don’t you take a turn? Why does it always have to me?… I told them later that I don’t want to be the only one.”
Williams took a step back to ease her workload and had some of her star students take over her lessons. She also started writing resource books for them to teach from and with her daughter, she recorded audio clippings to help them hear how to properly pronounce phrases.
Although she’s 81 years old, she’s not done yet. Working with a language authority program, Williams plays a key role in standardizing the phonetics of the Nisga’a language and is putting together a dictionary of all the words she can find. There have been two other translated versions of Nisga’a from the missionary days that break down its oral speech onto paper. So using a modernized alphabet, she’s been researching those texts and matching those translations with her memory.
Williams says it’s become a full-time job trying to immortalize Nisga’a to ensure its survival. Sometimes, she’s worried it’s not enough but hopes that if she can leave a physical trace of the endangered language, then some people will be able to refer to it and continue those teachings.
“This is why we have the language authority, we’re official now,” she says. “Without the language, we wouldn’t have an identity, we wouldn’t be Nisga’a anymore, and that would be sad.”