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Indigenous languages map a ‘living resource’ for cultural survival across BC

A new interactive map helps people living in BC learn more about the Indigenous languages and cultures around them.

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) launched the First Peoples’ Map last week, the first map of its kind showing information about the diversity of living Indigenous language, art and culture.

“As a living map, it uniquely weaves together updated content from community experts who are deeply invested in the work of Indigenous linguistic, artistic, and cultural survival across BC,” reads a press release from FPCC.

Gerry Lawson (Ma̓la̓gius) is a member of the Heiltsuk Nation and manages the Oral History and Language Lab at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Through that work, he’s managing the Indigenization program that allows Indigenous communities to digitize their own cultural heritage.

Lawson said the map has been extremely useful for him—and what’s most important about it is the fact that the communities themselves were involved in creating it.

“Maps tend to be quite political. Where you draw lines makes a difference, and who’s drawing the lines definitely makes a difference. … They draw these lines with care,” he said.

first peoples map

Communities themselves are involved in picking important parts of their language, art, and culture that they want represented on the map, exactly as they present it without fear that it will be changed or editorialized.Lawson said that “trust relationship” based on communities being able to control their own information is really important.What’s more, the maps don’t follow the colonial boundaries of BC and Canada, instead showing the traditional territories of different communities as they really are: stretching up into present-day Alaska, down into Washington and Idaho, and out into Alberta as well.Lawson said Indigenous communities have never seen themselves or their languages as organized around those colonial boundaries, and this map purposely ignores the borders.While political boundaries may have changed over time, Lawson stressed that an important element of the map is placing the communities it covers firmly in the present. That’s in stark opposition to media coverage and education curriculums that “relegate Indigenous people to the past.”“We’re spoken about like we don’t exist anymore. … And this map is a living resource; it can be updated. Through things like community healing and cultural revival efforts and partnerships, to all sorts of things that communities are doing, they can update the map over time to reflect these changes in attitudes in communication and openness in sort of their feelings around the safety of sharing their own information,” he said.“Some traditions are coming back and being revived through sort of new understandings of what we did traditionally. The map can be updated to reflect those traditions.”The map shows that the area we now refer to as the city of Burnaby sits on the unceded territories of people who speak hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.People who speak hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, which is part of the Salishan language family, comprise 42 different communities across the Lower Mainland and the east coast of Vancouver Island—in and around Burnaby, that includes people from the Kwantlen, Tsleil-Waututh, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations.The map says the population of hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking people sits at 18,235. Of those, 93 are fluent speakers, 767 people understand the language somewhat, and 1,238 people are learning. If you’re interested in learning hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, you can take a look at some resources here.Meanwhile, the traditional land of people speaking Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim is also in and around Burnaby, primarily on the North Shore and around the Burrard Inlet. The map says of a population of 4,280, 6 people are fluent in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, while 24 have some understanding and 449 people are learning. If you’re interested in learning the common greeting in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, you can listen to a recording of it directly from the map.A few artists from Burnaby are highlighted, like designer Denita Gladeau, musician Shannon McKenney, and carver Victor H. Reese.Also featured on the map is a sculpture by Thomas Cannell entitled Vitality that sits outside the Shadbolt Centre for Arts.

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Lawson describes each point on the map as a story of success. Through years of being talked about by colonial institutions instead of talked with, the ability of each community to decide how they want to be represented on the map is a form of cultural autonomy.Not to mention, the fact that resources—and funding—were even devoted to creating the map in the first place, which Lawson points out is alive with colours.“The map aesthetically is beautiful. There’s been a heaviness to work around Indigenous language and cultural revival based on the way that it was lost to our communities. And based on chronic underfunding, language champions … haven’t been able to make a real living doing the work. They’re doing it out of this labour of love,” he said.“We’re starting to see a change … as younger people pick up the language, it’s becoming more joyful. And the map really reflects that, the aesthetic nature and the colourfulness. It’s beautiful to look at, and it’s fun to move around. And that’s the way language and culture work should be. It should be joyful.”