Twenty-five actors worked through two weeks of intensive Haida language training at Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee Hiellen Village nestled beside Taaw Tow Hill this past month.
Here muskeg drains over a sandy beach which stretches away east to Naay Kun House Point. K’ayGang.nga the Haida cannon of oral histories describe the many supernaturals that dwell beneath the sandy spit, which extends beyond sight into wrestling ocean currents and wind-driven waves.
Here Nang Kilslaas One Whose Voice is Obeyed, or Raven discovered kuuniisii ancestors in a cockleshell and supernaturals showed them how to craft tluu canoes and gyaaGang monumental poles.
Today at the foot of Taaw a row of longhouses sit in the scattered light of evergreens. Songbirds of all colours call to one another, shorebirds poke through kelp and discarded skate purses and xuuya ravens gather grass to build nests high on the hill.
Amidst calling birds, rustling trees and pounding surf the Haida film project brought three branches of the Haida language – K’íis Xaad kíl, Gaaw Xaad kil and HlG_aagilda Xaayda kil – together in a single effort to teach actors the sounds of their language. A few participants travelled from Alaska to contribute.
To begin the two weeks of training actors read through the script together. The actors range in expertise from fluent speakers like GwaaGanad Diane Brown and Ilskyaalas Delores Churchill, to long-term champions who have dedicated their lives to revitalization like K’uuyand Benjamin Young and language supporter Jaskwaan, intermediate speakers who study through programs like language boot camps at Xaad Kihlga Suu.u and Simon Fraser University’s language-teacher certification, to beginners.
“Everyone brings their own skills and knowledge to contribute to our learning,” said actor Gidin Jaad Erica Ryan-Gagne. “Every one of these language teachers and learners is vital and important to our community’s effort to revitalize our language. We all worked hard together in three dialects and had an amazing time that enriched and renewed our spirit. We all share a love of our language and that brought us together and strengthened us, stepping out of our comfort zones and gearing up for the film project.”
Speaking the language well will be a crucial component of the film’s success and many involved acknowledged that pronunciation sounded rough to start. Progress depended on fluent-speaking language mentors, many of whom travelled from SHIP in HlGaagilda to provide one-on-one guidance and lead group sessions with the cast. Each day after working through language activities together the cast would break into smaller groups and work more intensively with elders in the smaller cabins.
“We borrowed a technique used by theatre to memorize lines. This involved having fluent speakers feed the lines to actors. Something about being fed lines as opposed to reading helps speed up the process of memorization. But was also fundamental in this project, as it helped imprint the proper pronunciation in Xaad Kil and Xaayda Kil. The profound thing is this process is usually used for English actors learning English scripts, but here we had actors learning their lines in another language. So i was shocked that many had their lines memorized half way through the two-week program! The actors and language mentors worked tirelessly together to ensure that the lines were spoken accurately. Now people have their lines memorized! It’s just incredible.”