Terri Burr (Al’lidaaw) is a Sm’algyax speaker who gave a presentation at Kitsumkalum Hall on Mar. 2 to encourage students to learn the Tsimshian language. (Natalia Balcerzak/Photo)

Two Sm’algya̱x speakers come to Kitsumkalum to encourage learners

Their aim is to preserve the endangered language of the Tsimshian Nation

Two Sm’algya̱x teachers from Alaska visited Kitsumkalum last week to teach and emphasize the importance of preserving the endangered language of the Tsimshian Nation.

Terri Burr (Al’lidaaw) and 96-year-old John Reese (Medeeg), both Sm’algya̱x speakers of Ketchikan and Metlakatla, Alaska, were featured at the Speaker Series Event at Kitsumkalum Hall on Mar. 2.

Sm’algya̱x is a dialect of the Tsimshian language spoken in northwest B.C. and southeastern Alaska. Alongside the Kitsumkalum, in the surrounding First Nations lands near Terrace, the Nisga’a and Gitksan have their own similar Tsimshian dialects.

“I’ve really internalized the feeling that every single word has a story and an emotion in it… [Reese] has been teaching me how to speak Sm’algya̱x for the last nine years and for many years in Ketchikan, we felt that we were the only Sm’agyax language team,” says Al’lidaaw. “In the last 230 years, our Tsimshian Nation has gone through some incredibly terrible changes and strife… and as a result, this has impacted our Sm’algya̱x.”

Together, Reese and Burr, have made an effort to save the scarce Sm’algya̱x language by teaching it online, through university classes and community-based settings. Reese is the last remaining first language fluent speaker in Ketchikan, Alaska.

READ MORE: Sm’algya̱x language explored through conversation, art

Reese fell ill and was unable to make his public appearance at the speaker presentation.

But Burr says that throughout their visit, they’ve been both “heartened” to find out that Kitsumkalum people have been taking initiative to learn the Sm’algya̱x language and are prioritizing the revitalization of it.

“We’ve been very impressed… what’s happening in Kitsumkalum is something new. The way Mique’l Dangeli is using her education aids in her classroom is much more effective than I’ve seen in any other school or immersion program before. Students are exposed to the language and are voluntarily making use of Sm’algya̱x every day at school and with their families,” says Burr.

Mique’l Dangeli (Loodm ‘Nuusm) is a Sm’algya̱x language teacher and Tsimshian culture coordinator at the ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum. She has 80 students that she teaches at the school, along with evening community classes and language courses at UNBC.

“It’s said that when a language dies, it’s like the library of Congress burning down in terms of knowledge systems and documentation of all these different ways of understanding and knowing the world intimately,” says Dangeli. “The way I think about it when a language dies is that it’s catastrophic, it’s the end of an entire world… it’s more closely associated with the extermination of a people.”

READ MORE: Tahltan woman appointed to Canada’s gun advisory committee

For Dangeli, she’s focused on preserving the language by bringing it to life in her classrooms. Her students sing songs, play games and learn how to use Sm’algya̱x in a natural, conversational way.

“Acquiring our language is like acquiring any language. The more you put it in active context of use in everyday interactions of people, especially in needs, wants and desires — that language acquisition happens through the necessity of communication,” says Dangeli.

She adds that since their language is critically endangered, the bands of the Tsimshian Nation have to mobilize their efforts together despite the border, which she says is not theirs and was imposed on them by colonial governments.

By bringing in Reese and Burr, she says that it proves their connection to one another and increases the momentum of the Tsimshian revitalization movement. She’s also glad that her students can hear positive feedback from outside Sm’agyax speakers who encourage their educational journey.

“We know that our language is being strengthened and reborn into these different ways, we can see it manifest in the health and vitality of our young people, in their confidence and in themselves as Tsimshian people,” says Dangeli. “When we bring this back together, it [also] heals our elders who have gone to residential schools.”



Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Regional ringette team off to the BC Winter Games

Players come from Terrace and Houston

Bachrach rejects calls for police action against demonstrators

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP says only way out of crisis is “true nation-to-nation” talks

Guinness Book of World Records’ towering tree swing taken down in Terrace

The Southside recreation fixture measured more than 64 feet

Coast Mountain College appoints a new president

The promotion came from within the school

Gitxsan man resigns from military after RCMP enforces pipeline order

Daryn Forsyth says he could no longer serve a Crown whose actions he disagrees with

Pipeline dispute: Tories put no-confidence motion on House of Commons agenda

Conservatives say they have no confidence in the Trudeau government to end the rail blockades

Galchenyuk nets shootout winner as Wild edge Canucks 4-3

Vancouver tied with Calgary for second spot in NHL’s Pacific Division

B.C.’s soda drink tax will help kids lose weight, improve health, says doctor

Dr. Tom Warshawski says studies show sugary drinks contribute to obesity

A&W employees in Ladysmith get all-inclusive vacation for 10 years of service

Kelly Frenchy, Katherine Aleck, and Muriel Jack are headed on all-expenses-paid vacations

B.C. mom’s complaint about ‘R word’ in children’s ministry email sparks review

In 2020, the ‘R’ word shouldn’t be used, Sue Robins says

B.C., federal ministers plead for meeting Wet’suwet’en dissidents

Scott Fraser, Carolyn Bennett says they can be in Smithers Thursday

Province shows no interest in proposed highway between Alberta and B.C.

Province says it will instead focus on expanding the Kicking Horse Canyon to four lanes

First case of COVID-19 in B.C. has fully recovered, health officer says

Three other cases are symptom-free and expected to test negative soon

Budget 2020: Weaver ‘delighted,’ minority B.C. NDP stable

Project spending soars along with B.C.’s capital debt

Most Read