Q&A with Xaad kil Learner Kihlguulans Christian White

Master Carver Kihlguulans putting some final touches on the gyaa’ang monumental totem pole bound for Waglisla Bella Bella. The gyaa’ang was raised at the Bighouse in Waglisla October 2019. PC: Council of the Haida Nation/Ileah Mattice

How long have you been learning Xaad kil?
I started learning Haida in the late 1990s, somewhere around 1998. I started attending evening classes to learn Xaad kil.

What inspired you to start learning? 
I’ve always been an artist. I wanted to know more about the Haida stories and all the different crests in the language. I wanted to be able to communicate in the Haida language. It’s always been one of my goals to learn our language and become fluent.

Who did you learn from?
There were so many Elders that we learned from. That’s a long time, really. It’s been more than twenty years since I started to learn Haida. Tsinnii Stephen Brown was one of my teachers and Naanii Mary Swanson. Of course, there are many others – Naanii Adelia Adams, Naanii Dorothy Bell, Naanii Ethel Jones – there were just so many. It was very interesting being in the classes. As we went around the class, there were maybe a dozen or more Elders and each of them had a little different variation and we noticed that they were from all different lineages. At one time, their families came from different parts of Haida Gwaii and others had influences from Alaska also. There were very minor differences and it was so interesting to hear that.


Instead of “good evening my friend” we can say, “sang yaas ‘laa dii tuuwii.” And instead of, “you too,” it is, “daa san.” There are ways to say it in simple forms, to use every day.


What are some challenges you face?
I think one of the biggest challenges, and it’s still happening today, was that our Elders didn’t really speak that much Haida to each other, they spoke a bit of Haida but not a lot. So, we never really had full immersion. We were learning word for word or sentence by sentence. Another big challenge was the changing of the phonetic writing system; in the twenty years, we had changes happening every two to three years. Changes in the writing system made it quite confusing and it was really difficult as a student. We were doing a lot of writing and we needed that to remind us what we were learning. We also could have been trained to record properly, we were recording on cassette tapes and never really trained to record Elders properly on modern devices. Now we have to convert these tapes to be digitized and we are losing records by not having them. People could share the resources and make sure they get copied, it all needs to be centralized. That is really important for sharing resources and continuing with what we have. And we have to start using the Haida language more every day. 

What helps you to continue going? 
It is like the Haida art form, there are endless possibilities. There are new sentences to be made, new statements, there is poetry and songs. I like to talk to myself or talk to our pet Nagats’ii fox and say sentences in Haida to my apprentices and others around me. I like to say things in Haida and explain what it means so people get used to hearing it all the time. It is a great thing to normalize it and popularize it and now it is up to the younger generations to step forward and to make it more popular. It’s something to be really proud of.

Do you have advice for people who want to learn?
There are resources available. You have to cleanse your mind in a way and immerse yourself in the language. For several years that is all I had on an iPod and I’d listen to it every day and there were endless statements on there. I miss that, I haven’t had that out for a while and I want to get that back. You have to listen to it then you will be able to understand and pronounce the sounds. A language to me is like a big three-dimensional puzzle so it could be a beautiful thing really. There’s past, present, future, and becoming tenses. There are so many different parts and things to describe and we have to use those more often. We usually take the lazy way out when we could be saying it in Haida. Instead of “good evening my friend” we can say, “sang yaas ‘laa dii tuuwii.” And instead of, “you too,” it is, “daa san.” There are ways to say it in simple forms, to use every day.


This article is published in the recent Haida Laas featuring Haida language speakers, learners and advocates. View or download the full edition here.


 

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