Hazelton, BC -- For more than 10 years, Cheyenne Gwaamuuk Morgan has been a language learner.
Originally from the Gitxsan village of Gitwangak, Cheyenne is a Gitksanimx Sim Algyax speaker and recently started teaching Intro to Gitksanimx Language Conversation (GITK 101) at Coast Mountain College’s (CMTN's) Hazelton campus.
Cheyenne’s language journey started when she discovered the Gitksanimx language page in First Voices, the online First Nations language app. Soon after, she attended a weekly drop-in class for Sim Algyax in Vancouver.
“At her class, Cheyenne connected with the course instructor Barbara Sennott, Xsim Mihl Mihl from the House of Geel. The course sparked an interest in taking her language learning further, which led to a Master of Arts degree in Indigenous Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria and participation in First Peoples Cultural Council’s (FPCC) Mentor-Apprentice Program with Barbara [Sennott] as her mentor.” (Source: First Peoples Cultural Council, Language in the Home)
Even as Cheyenne was starting to grasp Gitksanimx in the classroom, she felt that in order to take her language to a higher level and build upon her cultural knowledge, she needed to return home to Gitxsan territory.
After moving back to Hazelton and giving birth to her daughter, she was looking for ways to teach language, be a parent, and have a sustainable income. Through an FPCC-funded preschool language nest program, Cheyenne opened a childcare centre that she ran from her home. Meanwhile, in the community, she immersed herself in Gitxsan culture, participating in events that offered an opportunity to practice her language.
“The thing I like most about living at home is… participating in the feast system. I love to see the reciprocity…. Having people to speak and support us in the language is really a good feeling,” says Cheyenne.
The communities of Gitaanmax and Hazelton have been looking for more opportunities for adults to learn Gitksanimx on their territory. With fewer than 530 fluent speakers, many of whom are elders, having young adults learn the language is vitally important to its survival. Cheyenne says she was excited to transition from teaching language to children to teaching it to adults. She says that her people’s proficiency in Gitksanimx will increase when parents speak it to their children.
“They say that the most important place to speak the language is in the home. It wasn't until we stopped speaking language in the home that we really started to see a decline in fluent speakers,” she says.
Teaching adults a new language comes with its own set of challenges. Many Gitxsan adults are reluctant to learn Gitksanimx due to intergenerational gaps in cultural knowledge, disconnection from the land, or mental health hurdles. However, Cheyenne says that learning your people’s language can help individuals reconnect with their culture, the land, and their community. This has been her experience as a language learner.
“There's a lot of healing that we're doing not only for ourselves, but for the generations who have come before us. There are additional things that we're working through that other language learners may not have to experience. It can be heavy,” she says.
As the Gitsenimx Language Conversation 101 instructor at CMTN, Cheyenne has really enjoyed watching her students use the language outside the classroom in the community. This is especially evident in the feast hall. A lot of cultural business is carried out during feasts. Most elders, chiefs, and matriarchs try to use Gitksanimx frequently in the feast hall.
“I know it can be a nerve-wracking thing when you see a language speaker coming towards you and you're thinking, ‘Am I going to use Sim Algyax? Am I going to use English?’ You go back and forth with yourself as they're approaching. It's always exciting when students are building confidence to choose Sim Algyax,” says Cheyenne.
Cheyenne wants to create other programs and workshops in community to increase the frequency in which language learners are able to practice Gitksanimx with other community members. She and CMTN have discussed doing a follow-up Gitksanimx Language 102 course in the near future, as well.
“I would love to do mom and tot night supporting parents to use language in the home,” Cheyenne says. “I [also] think it would be really cool to see a Toastmasters night for people who want to focus on more formal language in community events.”
Cheyenne says her biggest piece of advice to new language learners is to never give up. Speak your language at home to your dog, your relatives, and your children as much as you can.
“Sometimes you feel like you're not getting anywhere, [but] you're just plateauing and you're just getting ready to climb that next hill. And if you give up, then you won't get over that next hill.”
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