“Speaking Haida for the first time in more than 60 years looked painful. Sphenia Jones’s cheeks glistened with sweat, and her eyes clenched shut. She tried again to produce the forgotten raspy echo of the Haida k’, and again she failed. Then she smiled broadly. ‘It feels so good,” Ms. Jones, 73, said. ‘Mainly because I can say it out loud without being afraid.’ Ms. Jones was sent far from home to a residential school to be forcibly assimilated into Western culture. When a teacher caught Ms. Jones learning another indigenous language from two schoolmates, Ms. Jones said, the teacher yanked out three fingernails.” C. Porter, The New York Times
“It worked: Ms. Jones spoke nothing but English, until recently, when she began learning her lines in the country’s first Haida-language feature film, Edge of the Knife.
With an entirely Haida cast, and a script written in a largely forgotten language, the film reflects a resurgence of indigenous art and culture taking place across Canada. It is spurred in part by efforts at reconciliation for the horrors suffered at those government-funded residential schools, the last of which was closed only in 1996.
Restoring the country’s 60 or so indigenous languages, many on the verge of extinction, is at the center of that reconciliation. The loss of one language, said Wade Davis, a University of British Columbia anthropology professor, is akin to clear-cutting an ‘old-growth forest of the mind.’ The world’s complex web of myths, beliefs and ideas — which Mr. Davis calls the ‘ethnosphere’ — is torn, just as the loss of a species weakens the biosphere, he said. A Haida glossary dedicates three pages to words and expressions for rain.
‘English cannot begin to describe the landscape of Haida Gwaii,’ the Haida homeland, Mr. Davis said. That really is what language is.’ Fewer than 20 fluent speakers of Haida are left in the world, according to local counts. For the Haida themselves, the destruction of their language is profoundly tied to a loss of identity.
‘The secrets of who we are, are wrapped up in our language,’ said Gwaai Edenshaw, a co-director of the film, who like most of the cast and crew grew up learning some Haida in school but spoke English at home.
Mr. Edenshaw was a co-writer of the script for the 1.8 million Canadian dollar ($1.3 million) film, which is set in Haida Gwaii — an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada — during the 1800s. It tells an iconic Haida story of the ‘wildman,’ a man who is lost and becomes feral living in the forest. In this version, the wildman loses his mind after the death of a child, and is forcibly returned to the fold of his community in a healing ceremony.
The film would seem cripplingly ambitious if not for the record of the executive producer, the Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk. He made his name with Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) which depicted an Inuit folk epic and starred untrained Inuit actors speaking their traditional language, Inuktitut.That film won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, and is still considered one of the best Canadian films of all time. Local builders constructed a long house on the site of an old traditional village where the film [Edge of the Knife] is being shot.
A local musician, Vern Williams, was hired to create songs for the film. During the evenings of the language camp, he pulled out his guujaaw — drum — and filled the long house with his low, mournful voice. Mr. Williams, 58, spent seven terrible years in a residential school.‘I don’t call this reconciliation,’ he said. ‘Something was taken. We are taking it back.’ A Haida artist tattooed clan crests on the chests and arms of willing actors in the traditional stick-and-poke fashion.
After a long day of stumbling over pronunciation, Mr. Russ, one of the actors, sat by the wood stove with his script open on his lap, enjoying Mr. Williams’s music for a moment. He had circled every line he found difficult, which were all 37.
His relaxation did not last long. ‘I’m starting to feel overwhelmed,’ he said, heading outside to practice.Two weeks was not enough to learn pronunciation, let alone memorize his lines. Then, he had to learn how to act.”