Dr. Mique’l Dangeli in Terrace where she has resided since 2017. ( Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)

Dr. Mique’l Dangeli in Terrace where she has resided since 2017. ( Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)

‘Raising Sm’algyax’: Tsimshian mothers reclaim the language through nursery rhymes for toddlers

The project is part of Dr. Mique’l Dangeli’s efforts to revitalize the Indigenous language

Dr. Mique’l Dangeli’s toddler, Hayetsk, is the first among two successive generations in his family to have Sm’algyax as his primary language.

Dangeli jests that his maternal grandmother worries she might find it difficult to communicate with her grandson who knows more of the language than she ever has her whole life.

“I tell her not to worry, Hayetsk will teach you” says Dangeli whose battle to revive the dialect of the Tsimshian people is slowly materializing as a tiny army of toddlers begin to adopt it as a first language.

Sm’algyax –which was nearly lost to colonization as generations of First Nation families were forbidden to speak their first language in residential schools– is slowly making a come back, thanks to the efforts of scholars like Dangeli who spent years learning and passing along the knowledge to the next generation.

Dangeli has taught Sm’algyax at “all levels of human development,” right from toddlers to school at Kitsumkalum First Nation’s Na Aksa Gyila̱k’yoo School to Tsimshian adults spread across North America.

Her most recent project, ‘Raising Sm’algyax,’ was created with a friend, Alex Roehl, from her hometown in Juneau,Alaska during the pandemic.

What initially started as a hashtag on social media, now has around 90 young Tsimshian mothers from across the north coast of B.C., Vancouver Island, Washington and Alaska coming together every week, virtually, to compose and learn nursery rhymes to teach their children.

“Raising our babies in our language, when that has been taken away from us for so many generations, is something I feel is an aspect of our language learning that needs more attention,” Dangeli explains.

There were very few resources available to young mothers to teach their children Sm’algyax when they started the group.

For example, “How do you talk about things that are part of your child’s everyday routine? Like diaper changing and bottles and teething and things that are very specific to little ones nursing and also even just talking about pregnancy and turning a baby.”

While the process of decolonization is very much embedded into her work as a teacher, motherhood was the driving factor for getting involved with this project.

As a Tsimshian mother, Dangeli didn’t want her son to grow up learning “colonial rhymes.”

“I wanted my son to hear our language,” she said, adding that the boy is her biggest inspiration when it comes to composing songs.

She took the melody of popular rhymes and changed the lyrics to reflect aspects that are more meaningful to the First Nations’ culture.

The group became a place of creativity, she says, as young Tsimshian mothers and grandmothers came together and helped create more than 85 songs since March 2020.

“Most of the songs have been completely written by our members, or translated and modified,” she says.

Dangeli’s favourite example of a modified song is the extremely catchy Apples & Bananas song from Sesame Street.

“One of the mothers took the song and she put in all of our traditional foods,” she said, giving an example of teaching children food names in Sm’algyax.

An adjunct professor of First Nation Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Dangeli’s work with the language began at a very young age while growing up in her grandmother’s house in Alaska. Her interest in the language came through dance, the first Tsimshian art form she learned.

“So learning our songs and our dances, I was learning our language through them and I had so many questions for my grandmother.”

While Dangeli’s grandmother, an oral historian, spoke Sm’algyax fluently, she hesitated to teach the young girl at first because of her experience at the residential school.

Dangeli says her grandmother was very worried for safety because of what she had experienced,” said Dangeli.

It was only when she was 22 and graduated from university, that her grandmother saw that it was not only safe for her to learn Sm’algyax but that she was finding success in it and being called on to teach the language.

“It opened her up to teach me more of our language.”

After completing her PhD in 2015, she went on to teach Sm’algyax at the University of Alaska Southeast briefly.

When she moved to Terrace in 2017 with her husband, Dangeli had the opportunity to further hone her Sm’algyax under the tutelage of Tsimshian scholars and first language fluent speakers like Dr. Margaret Anderson, Velma Nelson, Bea Robinson, Ellen Mason, Edward Innes and Bernice Bolton among others.

“I wouldn’t have been able to raise my son in our language if I didn’t study with them,” she said about how they helped her grow exponentially.

Dangeli leaves for a tenure track position at the University of Fraser Valley next month but she is confident that the language program she started at Kitsumkalum’s school is in safe hands.

“I’ve worked really hard to create succession,” she says, as one of her students prepares to take over.

Having taught Sm’algyax since she was 19-years-old in Alaska, Dangeli says it is not a tough language to learn but it takes a lot of time and dedication.

Through the process of reclaiming their language, she says, Tsimshian are simultaneously working through the emotions of language loss, too.

And that language loss also has to do with the loss of people. “So it reminds us of elders, you know, in our family and grandparents and aunties and uncles that we wish we would have spent more time with not knowing at that time, that not knowing at that time that our language was dying.”

In that sense, learning Sm’algyax is a very powerful tool because Indigenous language learning is integral to all the processes of decolonization and indigenization.

“When we can see our land and our waterways and our children and our grandparents through the lens of our ancestors, it’s the closest that we can get to recovering and healing from the trauma of colonization… Our words for people in our lives, our words, for everything around us have such complex and beautiful information to teach us about the ways in which our ancestors understood relationships between people, between waterways, between land, between animals, our origins… It’s a way of coming into yourself that nothing else provides.”