Breathing life back into their language: A collaborative e-dictionary project with Klahoose, Tla’amin, Homalco, and K’ómoks Nations

Today, fewer than 47 native speakers of ʔayʔaǰuθəm remain, all of whom are over the age of 60. To help preserve their traditional language, four sister nations—Klahoose, Tla’amin, Homalco, and K’ómoks—are working alongside researchers from UBC and the University of Alberta to develop an ʔayʔaǰuθəm e-dictionary, set to be featured on FirstVoices. 

To learn more about this initiative, we spoke with Koosen Pielle of the Tla’amin Nation, located in the tiskʷət region, currently referred to as​ ​Powell River, and Dr. Marianne Huijsmans, an Assistant Professor at U of A and an alumna of UBC’s Linguistics Department. Their joint commitment, along with a dedicated project team, has propelled the e-dictionary project for a remarkable seven years. 

In their conversation, Koosen and Marianne discuss how their project is uniting the nations and how the e-dictionary is making their language more accessible. They even teach us some ʔayʔaǰuθəm words (pronounced “eye-ah-jew-thum”). This is a beautiful conversation for anyone hoping to learn how people from different worldviews can come together to engage in meaningful, reciprocal community-university initiatives. 

Listen to the full interview or read the Q&A below. 

Although this conversation only features Koosen and Marianne, both wished to acknowledge that this project was done in collaboration with Jacqueline Mathieu and many others. 

This initiative is supported by the Community-University Engagement Support Fund.

Edits have been made to this written Q&A for clarity, style, and tone. 

How did the project get started and what community goals were you hoping to address?

Featuring Elders from the four sister nations. From left to right: ʔošil (Betty Wilson), Jerry Francis, Marion Harry, Herman Francis, Maggie Vivier, and Elsie Paul. Image provided by Koosen Pielle.

Koosen: The project began through the efforts of one of our language warriors, ʔošil (pronounced “Oh-Sheal”), also known as Betty Wilson. She played a pivotal role in uniting our four sister nations to collaboratively work towards preserving ʔayʔaǰuθəm. Before Betty’s intervention, each nation was independently trying to save the language. We were all working in isolation, struggling to pool our resources and make any significant progress. 

ʔošil was the person that brought us together. She ensured we were all aligned in our goals and even managed to get us all in the same room. Through her, we were introduced to various learning opportunities, from understanding the nuances of spelling to delving deeper into our writing system. In hindsight, I realize she was subtly preparing us for the e-dictionary project, all without explicitly mentioning it. Her brilliance is undeniable, and she’s the primary reason we’re all here today, united and motivated. 

Since the inception of this project, it’s been heartwarming to witness the surge of interest in our language. We’ve always envisioned our dictionary as a foundational platform. It serves as a starting point, but it’s true potential is realized only when people actively use it and integrate it into their daily lives. 

Our long-term vision is to see ʔayʔaǰuθəm seamlessly incorporated into everyday life. In the short term, we aim to equip our community with the necessary tools to make this vision a reality.

Can you share an overview of the project’s key milestones so far?

Marianne: The huge thing that initiated this project was ʔošil, or Betty’s efforts. She envisioned the four communities collaborating on this project. One significant step she took was discovering that Henry Davis, my supervisor at UBC, was seeking a SSHRC grant to develop dictionaries for other Indigenous languages. She then inquired if the four nations could join this endeavor, with ʔayʔaǰuθəm being one of the dictionaries. Henry agreed, and that’s how it all began. 

Koosen, Hoss Timothy (another Tla’amin community member), and I worked closely throughout the six-year duration of this project. Betty played a pivotal role as well. While Betty and our team conducted interviews and made recordings, Koosen, Hoss, and I were responsible for reviewing the audio. We segmented it, keeping in mind that the end goal was an e-dictionary. This would allow learners to listen to the pronunciations, not just read the words. 

Our team essentially functioned as audio technicians. We compiled a comprehensive database of words, their translations, and corresponding audio file names. This initial phase had several milestones. One notable achievement was the release of the first 1,000 words in our app. Later, we added another 500 words. Koosen might also recall a significant milestone about a year and a half ago, before we secured the CUES funding. 

As we began contemplating the next steps, we met with the language teams from the four sister nations. The consensus was that instead of maintaining four separate pages on FirstVoices, a website that has been a repository for years, the dictionary would also find its home there. The decision was to consolidate everything into one shared site. This would house the dictionary materials and all previously uploaded content from the sister nations, making it a comprehensive resource for learners. 

This consolidation was a monumental step. We wanted to ensure that all our recordings were primed for upload once the site was operational. This meant revisiting translations, verifying them collectively, and cross-checking spellings. It was at this juncture that we considered seeking support from CUES for this next phase of our work. 

Koosen: Before our current method, we used FirstVoices for recording language. Each of us had individual portals, and it felt like every person was on their own. In a span of 20 years, Tla’amin managed to archive 4,000 words and phrases. However, with our new and improved team that includes all four sister nations, we achieved a milestone of 4,000 words and phrases within six years. 

The game-changer for us was when we began collaborating as a united front. We took the time to reevaluate our working style, and we became more adaptable. If something didn’t work one week, we were comfortable discarding it and trying a new approach. Our progress has been rapid, and we’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. 

How are new generations using the e-dictionary to re-awaken the language?

Koosen: This brings to mind one of the activities I learned from my language teacher, Gail Blaney. We take a character, whether it’s a mainstream popular celebrity or cartoon character, and describe them in as many ways as we can in ʔayʔaǰuθəm. Engaging in such a fun and captivating activity wouldn’t be possible without these archives and knowing how to use them. 

However, the real challenge is about access. There’s such a limited number of us who live on reserve and have the opportunity to attend language classes. It’s just a small chunk of my people. So, making these resources available online ensures that it’s accessible for more people, and that’s what’s most important to me.  

Marianne: During our sessions and the review work, there was also an opportunity to learn and reconnect with the language. It reminded people of words they hadn’t heard in a long time. Some were even learning it for the first time because they hadn’t been exposed to the language while growing up. This was a recurring theme. It came from both elders who had grown up with the language but had been away from it, and from those who hadn’t been around the language much before. I thought that was really neat too.

Why are B.C. First Nation languages at risk?

What has been your favorite experience or outcome of the project? 

Koosen: payɛštʔot qəsqəsƛačɛm (pronounced “pie-eysh-aut-caste-latch”)—We’re always laughing—and that’s probably the biggest thing. Yeah, we’re always laughing, and everything is so much funnier in the language, truly. Some of the highlights? Just being together.  

We have all been separated due to colonization and from policies that aren’t ours. I don’t need to delve too deep into that, but language is something that we all share. It’s the thread that’s reuniting us.  

There are these moments where a translation in the language just resonates, where it suddenly clicks. I remember once, I was producing an audio play based on a legend my granny shared back in the ’90s. While editing, I kept hearing her use the word nɛkʷayu (pronounced “neck-wah-you”). At the time, I didn’t recognize it. Fast forward a few months, and during a dictionary session, there it was, right in front of me on paper. I thought, “Oh my God, she was referring to a meadow!” I was clueless then, but that repeated exposure, the chance to hear it multiple times, made the connection possible. 

It’s huge, really, having that opportunity for repetition and to learn directly from our elders. 

Marianne: That’s a recurring theme for us. We genuinely enjoy our time together. There’s a certain joy in being amidst such a wonderful group where everyone is focused. We’re all aligned, both in heart and mind, for this shared purpose. 

Koosen: When we introduced our initial 1000 words, we organized a community event. We captured a moment, a photograph with our elders from all four communities. That moment was significant. We hadn’t witnessed such unity in a long while. And honestly, that unity might not have been achieved without the aid of the e-dictionary. 

With the understanding that each word and phrase is connected to a particular worldview, can you share a word that is unique to ʔayʔaǰuθəm or different from English in particular?

Koosen: One of my absolute favorite words to introduce is “ǰɛǰɛ” (pronounced “jeh-jeh”). This term can mean your relative or your cousin, but it also signifies “tree”. To think of trees as our kin, our family, paints a distinct contrast from the perspective many English speakers might have. 

What I also cherish about our language is how it doesn’t heavily rely on male-female gender labels. For instance, we don’t differentiate between an older brother or sister. Instead, we simply have a term for “older sibling”. This concept extends to how we address our parents’ siblings too. Unlike the English “aunties” or “uncles”, we use the same term for that familial role. These are just a couple of examples that come to mind immediately. 

Marianne: One of our team members once remarked, “I like the conversations that are had around all the translations and that a lot of them aren’t straight across translations, meaning between ʔayʔaǰuθəm and English, so it takes in a whole different worldview when you’re looking at some of this language and some of these words. We all say languages and cultures are connected, but it also looks at not just language and culture, but a different worldview.” 

That was quite a powerful, all-encompassing sort of quote.

Marianne, as a settler and new to the language, have there been any words that have had a lasting impact on you?

Marianne: I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain it well, but I like “č̓ɛč̓ɛhaθɛč” (pronounced “​ch​eh-cheh-hath-ich”). It translates to “thank you”, but it’s also “welcome you”. The term holds different roles, and it offers such a distinct level of thanks compared to just saying “thank you”. It’s like an offering of respect. 

So, when you use it, it’s not just talking to someone, not just thanking someone. It extends to offering appreciation to the nature around you, to the objects you use. That sense of gratitude and care for our natural surroundings, and the items we interact with in the world, is something that’s profoundly resonates with me. It’s an aspect we seem to lack in Western culture. We’re so distant from that. 

I hesitate to say it’s “lost” because I’m not certain we ever truly had it. But it’s undeniably a void I feel in our culture.

What strengths did each party bring to the project?

Featuring Elders from the four sister nations. Top left to right: Freddie Louie, Randolph Timothy SR, and Eugene Louie. Bottom left to right: Maggie Wilson and Elsie Paul. Image provided by Koosen Pielle. 

Koosen: When Marianne came to our community, she took the time to get to know our people. It truly paid off in the end for people to recognize her, not just as someone who came here to work, but as a genuine member of our community. She made the effort to attend engagements, events, participate in local craft groups, go to church with Betty, and was always looking for ways to be helpful. 

Every morning, Marianne went for a run. So, all of our early risers would see her out on the highway. Her approach to our language, particularly her color coding and breakdown, is truly unmatched.   

Everyone adores Marianne. We feel incredibly fortunate to have her here. I remember thinking that any other group working on language revitalization would be lucky to have Marianne. Unlike some linguists who might come, extract information, and then depart, Marianne integrated herself into our community. 

I also want to mention Jacqueline, even though she’s not here. She’s like the experienced aunty of our group. She’s phenomenal at engaging with the elders in Klahoose, repeating questions, clarifying, and delving deep into cultural aspects when breaking down a word. Jacqueline is just as remarkable. 

Marianne: I truly believe I’m the luckiest linguist. Partnering with the four nations and all the awesome individuals that I’ve gotten to build relationships with has been a privilege, and the welcome I’ve received has been a gift and allowed me to learn such a lot about the culture and communities. I am indebted to the personal relationships and friendships we’ve cultivated. It’s this bond that sets the foundation for the work we do together. 

When I arrived, everyone was already deeply immersed in the language. A lot of groundwork had been laid, and I was hoping my linguistic background would be of value. But there was so much for me to learn beyond just the language itself. The community had been diligently working on dictionary projects for years—a domain I was unfamiliar with. So, I found myself learning immensely from the passionate, dedicated, and knowledgeable community members. 

I recall when we embarked on the CUES project, our goal was to review words swiftly, given the volume we had to cover. But Betty, one of our elders, stressed the importance of attaching an example sentence to every word. We’d originally set this as an objective but hadn’t given it enough focus, especially in our initial rush. This practice turned out to be instrumental. By analyzing these sentences, we gained a deeper understanding of the translations. This was a pivotal moment in my learning journey. 

Every day, I discover something new, be it about the culture or linguistics. The term č̓ɛč̓ɛhaθɛč, for instance, has reshaped my worldview. I’m constantly gaining new insights and experience from working with everyone. There’s so much more I could share, but these are just a few snapshots that come to mind. 

What advice do you have for others hoping to develop successful community-university partnerships?

Koosen: You need jehjehs. You need your relatives. I remember I was in a different set of training for language. One of the elders who was there told me, “You need to remember why you’re learning the language.” Your motives or intention will carry you through the bad days, the harder days, because it’s not all just laughing, right? 

It is actually a lot of hard, strenuous, tedious work. Sometimes, we’ll spend 8 hours in our meetings, and it feels like we only went over five words that day. But those five words? They were all extremely dense and unpacked. We discussed the different ways to say that one word, the various ways to use that sentence. So, on the days it feels like you’re getting nowhere, still celebrate your success. 

Celebrate how far you’ve come because that’s so important. No one can do what you’re doing for your community or your people. Hold that achievement close to your heart. We’re all doing this for the betterment of our community as a whole. 

Marianne: Relationships are pivotal. It’s essential to build those first and be open to continuous learning. Never fall into the trap of thinking you’ve got all the answers. 

Because the truth is, there’s always something new to learn. Discover methods where everyone can keep learning and where everyone has a meaningful role to contribute. And then, I suppose the most crucial aspect is to genuinely listen. When working with the four nations, a significant part of our journey is about attentive listening. It’s a journey, trying to determine the best way forward. 

It involves a deep level of listening—to everyone involved in the projects, to all those who harbor hopes, dreams, and concerns for the language. 

What’s next for the project?

Marianne: Well, we are so excited about having this team together, especially with the increased frequency afforded by the CUES project. One silver lining from COVID was our adoption of Zoom. We became quite proficient at it. When we sought CUES funding, our goal was to unite all four communities more frequently. Instead of just once a year, when we could afford the travel, we envisioned coming together every two weeks on Zoom.   

The team has been building tremendous momentum. We had some members join who were relatively new to dictionary work. Their initial experience was limited, but the beauty of it all is how we’ve been learning collectively. Over time, the team’s synergy and strength have grown exponentially. 

Continuity is key. As we move forward, I see the importance of maintaining the team’s cohesion. Whenever we dive deep into words, new ones emerge. Someone will always think of a different word, a variant of the same word, or even a fresh meaning that deserves exploration. 

Our upcoming challenge is to further the work and achieve our next milestone. This involves compiling everything we’ve documented and ensuring it’s accessible on our shared platform. 

Koosen: This e-dictionary endeavor has empowered many of us. With this newfound confidence, some of us are eagerly pivoting to our next venture: grammar. Now that we possess the words, the natural progression is to dissect and understand them. How can we manipulate a root word, derive multiple interpretations, and detect the intricate patterns in our language? 

Naturally, any learner begins with acquiring vocabulary. Following that, they delve into understanding grammar and recognizing patterns, crucial steps toward achieving fluency. Our communities are collectively driving efforts to amplify language courses, organize language-centric events, and, ultimately, envisioning a future where our children are immersed in our language. While this vision surpasses the scope of just our working group, that is what our group is working towards. 

In our journey, we’ve been graced by the participation of elders, some of whom had been distant from our community for a very long time. Molly comes to mind—she was this beautiful elder who was rediscovered and is fluent AF. Her excitement and readiness to share her knowledge has been one of the most heartwarming outcomes of our initiative. 

We hope to continue growing relationships and confidence. Through our work, we hope to inspire more members of our community to get involved. While our group currently consists of ten dedicated individuals, we still need 800 people to save the language someday.