This Week in History: Indigenous language preservation at the Royal BC Museum

WatchThere are thousands of languages spoken around the world but Indigenous languages are disappearing quickly. More than 50 per cent of Canada's Indigenous languages originate in B.C. and the Royal BC Museum is working hard to preserve them.

There are nearly 7,000 languages in the world, and globally, Indigenous languages are disappearing quickly.

More than 50 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous languages are in British Columbia. And the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) is hard at work to preserve them.

“We’ve got 34 [Indigenous] language families in British Columbia alone” Lucy Bell, head of the RBCM Indigenous Collections and Repatriation, said. 

Bell reflects back on a workshop she attended in Washington DC, in 2017, titled The Breath of Life.

“‘The Breath of Life’ is all about language revitalization in a museum setting,” says Bell.

“For three weeks we got to immerse ourselves in the Haida recordings and do a project about it. And for me to come back to this museum, and present these ideas…it was after that that we really amped up our digitization of language recordings,” says Bell.

And there is a large collection of language recordings to be digitized.

“In our collection we probably have over 3,000 recordings. Vocabulary recordings, Potlatch recordings, songs, interviews…and they exist on tapes, they exist on these reels, they come in all formats. To be able to digitize them preserves them, and it also makes it easier for us to repatriate them back to the Indigenous communities,” says Bell.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council” says Bell,

“And years ago developed the Our Living Languages exhibit, in collaboration with the Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia, to celebrate, honour, and recognize all of the Indigenous languages in British Columbia.”

Now, the Royal BC Museum has taken that a step further with a gallery refresh.

Within that refresh, Bell is particularly proud of the refresh of the Skedans model.  “I’m Haida” says Bell.

“So that model has a special place in my heart.”

The museum added songs traditional Haida songs to the model, as well as names to the various houses.

“All Haida houses used to have names,” says Bell.

“And they would have been Potlatched and celebrated, and we were able to put those names back on display.

“So little things in the exhibit, just to celebrate and bring language back, has been a good focus for us this year.”

And an important focus too.

“This is UNESCO’s year of Indigenous languages” says Bell.

“And the Royal BC Museum is really trying to step up and be a part of that movement.”

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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