Sitting in K’i Uljuus or Mudalaaw Elizabeth “Sibby” Moore’s saanaa nee living room in the early days of K’inad summer, I have the honour to talk with her about the history of language advocacy on Haida Gwaii. We dig deep into the days of Haida language organizing starting in 1990s, and in our conversation, I better understand Mudalaaw’s leadership and how great of an impact one person can have.
Mudalaaw describes that her interest in the Haida language began as a young adult, “When I was about 23 years-old, I was trying to figure out where to go to learn. My Uncle Russel Samuels encouraged me and told me to go see Naanii Emma Matthews.” As a result of Mudalaaw’s early interest, she began work at Tahayghen Elementary School and started to experience the contradictions of teaching the Haida language in the Western education system, which presented a clash in worldviews and ways of doing things. The noun-focused teaching methods practiced in English learning conflicts with the verb-based Haida language ways of looking at the world.
Recognizing this paradox, Mudalaaw describes three Haida-led initiatives that uplifted our shared community language journey. All three of these initiatives have had a tremendous impact on our nation, and all three were a result of the first ever Haida language conference held in 1992. The Elders at the conference stated that they wanted the young people to learn and use our language and Mudalaaw was one of the young leaders who responded to that call.
The noun-focused teaching methods practiced in English language learning conflicts with the verb-based Haida language ways of looking at the world. Recognizing this, Mudalaaw outlines three significant initiatives brought to light at this time of our community language journey and the valuable impact these projects represented for our community.
Xaad Kil Language Immersion Camp
As a result of the conference, Haida language advocate Xiihlikingang April Churchill raised money to have a language immersion camp at T’aalan Stl’ang Lepas Bay. Haida language Elders, teachers, and learners came together for a 10-day session. It was the first of its kind for Xaad kil and an important opportunity to support language learning.
Mudalaaw describes the immersion as a beautiful thing, “There was no lead instructor,” she recalls, “the Elders just let it unfold naturally.” Mudalaaw continues, “I still remember learning this one phrase from Henry Geddes: ‘dang hl isda gyeedang.’ He taught us that Haida were so polite they wouldn’t even walk in between people if they were talking. They would always say, ‘dang hl isda gyeedang’ excuse me.”
The participants included a cadre of fluent Xaad kil Elders, including Xiilaang Jaad Grace Wilson, SGaan Jaad Phyllis Almquist, and Ilskyalas Dolores Churchill, among others. Haida language teachers also attended as participants, including Xiihlikingang, K’aayhlt’aa Xuhl Rhonda Bell, and Fred White. That first immersion camp set the tone and sowed the seed for future initiatives that continued to build community and support language learners and mentors in this monumental task of carrying our language forward.
Xaad Kil Saturday Night Dinners
Following this immersion camp, another pivotal language space started up in the community. Fluent speakers asked the learners to arrange for even more regular places and spaces to get together and speak the language. This is how the revered Xaad Kil Saturday Night dinners began.
Xaad Kil Saturday Night was another important initiative organized by the community and it was as impactful as it was grassroots. Mudalaaw describes that the shared love for the language brought everyone to the table, “We met Saturday nights no matter what, if there was a wedding or a dance or anything, we just made sure we went. We always brought our own traditional foods and the Naaniis just loved that,” she describes with a content smile. “We all just went to be together. We did a bit of fundraising to give the Naaniis money for their Anglican Church Women’s group. We never paid them to be there with us, but when they traveled away, we wanted to give them something and the Naaniis really loved it.” Mudalaaw reflects back on the initial group and tells me that Candace and Kihlguulans Christian White, Tracey Moore, Vince Collison and Skilay were always there.
Te Kehongo Reo Inspires Xaad Kil Xaad Kil Gwaaygangee
Another result of the Haida language conference was a grassroots organization aptly named Xaad Kil. The new initiative was also guided by fluent Elders of the day and became another catalyst for strengthening language learning efforts. At the time, Language Nests in New Zealand were having breakthroughs and advancing language teaching using a model that brought together Elder fluent speakers with newborn babies and toddlers. Seeing the positive results that the Maori were having, the Haida language community wanted to learn more. Mudalaaw and the Xaad Kil group were as determined as ever and started fundraising to send a group of Haida language teachers, fluent Elders, and community language organizers to New Zealand in 1994 to visit the nest programs called Te Kehongo Reo. Skilay Ernie Collison, a key community leader who encouraged the initiative, was among the Haida delegation that traveled to learn more about this groundbreaking new program.
Ten years later, and in part due to the earlier trip to New Zealand, Mudalaaw helped to open Xaad Kil Gwaaygangee Haida Language Nest at the Dii Tuulang Nee Family Centre in Gaw Tlagee Old Massett. Fundraising, donations, and grassroots efforts – along with endless hours of love and dedication – allowed for the program to operate successfully for many years. Xaad Kil Gwaaygangee was run by the community language organization Xaad Kihlga Hl Suu.u Everyone Speak Haida, and operated in the Dii Tuulang Nee until 2012. It was a major stepping stone in community-run spaces and many Haida families, mine included, participated in that program and many of us became language students, advocates, and teachers.
As we sit together on this warm K’inad afternoon reminiscing about these early days, I comment on what an impactful time this was for Xaad kil. The first immersion camp, the Saturday Night dinners and the language nest all charted a path for the next generation of learners, then I ask her, “What do you see as a legacy of that time that’s carried on to today?”
After a short pause, Mudalaaw answers, “It is pretty impressive. There were just a handful of us doing it for years, we were truly doing grassroots organizing for Xaad kil and the efforts have had an impact. We keep creating healthy spaces for young people to learn and we can continue to succeed. It is not hard, it’s only hard when we think it is.”
Today, as much as the past decades, Mudalaaw has remained committed to her language learning journey and inspired her own family who have stepped into their responsibility as language stewards. At this year’s language camp at T’aalan Stl’ang, she was joined by her daughter Jaasaljuus, nephew K’iijuuhlaas Nathaniel White, and granddaughter and namesake K’ii Aljuus.
“A lot of my immediate family members are just ready to go with it,” Mudalaaw says proudly. “Taawstaasin, Erika, Nathaniel, and Jaadaljuus have all signed up for the Haida Gwaii Mentor Apprentice Program. They are learning not only during their mentorship time but they’re also bringing it home and then going off on their own, and asking really good questions as they learn.”
With decades of learning, volunteering, and advocating for the language, it is inspiring to hear Mudalaaw conclude, “It can happen, we can speak Xaad kil.” I have to agree with her: fluency is in our future, in great part, due to trailblazers like Mudalaaw.
It was such an honour to sit down with Mudalaaw and learn about the years of efforts she and others have contributed to our precious language. Haw’aa Mudalaaw, for all that you have done for our Xaad kil.
This article is published in the recent Haida Laas featuring Haida language speakers, learners and advocates. View or download the full edition here.