Seeing the World Through Kwakwala

Learning the Kwakwala language gave artist Marianne Nicolson a view of the world through the ideas and words of her ancestors; she and others are working to maintain the endangered language

By Connie Kretz

When she was growing up, artist Marianne Nicolson was often told by elders that she would never understand her Kwakwaka’wakw culture if she didn’t understand the language, Kwakwala.

Their comments made her curious. "Why would there be a limitation on your understanding if you can translate texts and have things explained in English?” she wondered.

But as she began to study the language, she realized that some ways of thinking and expression in Kwakwala didn’t exist in English. And as she became able to look at the world through the assumptions embedded in Kwakwala, a non-Western language, she also began to see the assumptions embedded in English.

Roughly 250 people can speak Kwakwala fluently. As such, the language is considered endangered – a legacy of government assimilation policies in the 1800s and 1900s, including potlatch bans and residential schools, where children were barred from speaking their own languages. Kwakwala is not alone in its endangered status. Of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, one dies every two weeks, according to National Geographic’s 2007 Enduring Voices project. With each language lost, another part of humanity’s knowledge disappears, as well as unique ways of looking at and being in the world. This is what is at stake with Kwakwala.


Nicolson is of both Kwakwaka’wakw and European descent. Through her mother she is a member of the Dzawada’enuxw Tribe from Kingcome Inlet; her father was a Scottish immigrant. Her interests span from the art world to academia. Born in Comox, she grew up speaking English but began studying Kwakwala as part of a masters degree at the University of Victoria. She has since gone on to PhD work.

She outlines some of the ideas and concepts in Kwakwala that differ from English.

In Kwakwala, she said, there is a relationship drawn between the human body and the landscape and objects. Because of this relationship, the landscape and objects contain a potential for "aliveness," or animation, that’s not present in English.

"You could then understand why, in our stories, a mountain could be a person,” she said.

She explains further: "We have a story where a boy came out of the stone and he formed one of the clans of the Dzawada’enuxw. And in English-speaking Western European culture that wouldn’t make any sense because a stone is an inanimate object. But in Kwakwala, because of the forms of the language, these things are given more possibility for being animate.”

The notion of the individual is also broader than in English.

"English is much more embedded in the notion of the individual,

and so one thinks of ‘I’, and also you’re taught to think of yourself as bounded by your body,” she said.

"But maybe in Kwakwala … you are taught that who you are is more extended beyond that, and so your responsibility and what you take care of, and how you … perceive your relationship with things, is different,” she said.

These ideas have implications for how people relate to their surroundings.

"If you were encouraged to think of the landscape as similar to your body, then you take care of your body, right? And you would take care of the landscape, right? Because it’s an extension,” she said.

It’s ideas like these that could potentially give our current mainstream culture, in which humans are seen as separate from the environment, other ways of looking at the world that could shape our collective future. The United Nations, which declared 2008 the Year of Languages, describes it this way: "When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future – are also lost.” Will Kwakwala survive the suppression that left the world only a small number of fluent speakers? It’s difficult to know, but many people in our communities have been working for years to pass the language and the knowledge it contains to future generations.


In the First Nations Education Department office in Campbell River, Pam Holloway leans across a table and spreads out a stack of booklets and flashcards. She props up posters, artwork and games to show a visitor. These are some of the materials she has developed over two decades of teaching Kwakwaka’wakw culture and the Kwakwala language to children in School District 72. These are the tools that she and others are using to pass Kwakwala on to the next generation.

Within the district, 1,080 children are of Aboriginal descent, according to Lisa Johnson, a curriculum education resource teacher in the department. That means one in six students in the total student population. Holloway says the district’s language program has been operating for about 30 years. They teach Kwakwala and Liqwala, the local dialect (sometimes considered a separate language), starting from pre-school kids in Headstart programs, right up to grade 12.

Among the materials on Holloway’s table are a series of booklets she designed for teaching kids to read English. She flips through them, explaining how they work. Pictures flash by of masks, button blankets, animals and plants, introducing the culture alongside the vocabulary. They are also being translated into Kwakwala.

Holloway also builds kits for different grade levels. Each usually

includes a game, artwork exercises and songs that teach vocabulary. Often, all of these materials are designed by Holloway. She has created a canoe journey game, and put together a plant identification game with another teacher.

"So I guess, [I’m] just trying to make it fun to learn. And songs – songs are really important. And I’m hoping to one day … to eventually have a little CD, maybe a DVD,” she said, laughing.

In addition to her own work with the language, Holloway commends that of others.

The U’mista Cultural Society at Alert Bay has "some wonderful materials," she said.

And she credits the other people on her team, who include Johnson, two other teachers and a resident elder, Diana Matilti, who is a fluent speaker.

Holloway also acknowledges the team’s limits: "We can’t teach fluency, [but] we can teach people how to read and write it, and give them a basic kind of introductory understanding of the language.”

She worries about losing the language but remains positive: "I don’t get discouraged and I try not to feel too pressured because I just feel like I can only do so much and I’m just doing my part.”

"And there are a lot of people in my generation who are working, separately in other districts or just on their own, preserving, recording, doing what they can to help. So I think in the end that will be what makes the difference.”

Nicolson, too, is concerned about Kwakwala’s future.

"When I was younger … I thought, ‘Well it can be translated, and we are saving our culture.’ … But what I’ve realized is that we can imitate what our people were doing in the past but we do not truly understand in the way that they understood it,” she said.

"I hate to sound so down and out about it, but I guess at the ame time if you don’t talk about it then people don’t realize how important it would be to keep this thing going.”

Nicolson’s latest work is a large outdoor piece at the Vancouver Art Gallery called the House of Ghosts. The work brings Kwakwala into the heart of the city. At night, projected images of totem poles and a house front turn the gallery’s facade into a glowing Kwakwaka’wakw Big House. By day, it changes: "In the daytime you see a banner and the banner has two red borders, and on the borders is an English text and a Kwakwala text, and those texts really relate to what is going on with our culture today,” Nicolson said.

"The text was very very important to me,” she said. "Especially to see that relationship of the English and the Kwakwala in a public place like downtown Vancouver.”

The English text summons the ghosts to come forward. The final stanza reads: "I beg you, Great Healer, to take pity on us and restore us to life.”

Through their work with Kwakwala, it seems that Nicolson, Holloway and others are doing just that.


Connie Kretz is a freelance writer based in Campbell River. An opportunity to study Mandarin in Taiwan helped her realize how deeply language affects how we see the world.


Places to study Kwakwala online:"www.firstvoices.caThe site hosts several Aboriginal languages, including 4,419 Kwakwala words and 822 phrases, all recorded by fluent speakers" The site offers a Liqwala/Kwakwala interactive alphabet, including recordings of words and sentences by a fluent speaker. Click on "Programs and Services” and then on "Aboriginal Education” to get to the alphabet.