Wednesday, June 24, 2009

NAT: Hendrix and Language -- 2000th Post!

From Hendrix to Hul’q’umi’num’: B.C. profs fighting to save native language
By Jack Knox, Victoria Times Colonist, June 21, 2009

VICTORIA — If only Tom Hukari had managed to get his hands around Jimi Hendrix’s throat, the Hul’q’umi’num’ language might have been lost forever.

Not to mention Purple Haze, Little Wing and Voodoo Chile.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. It’s not as though University of Victoria language prof Hukari was the only one working to preserve Hul’q’umi’num’, one of Vancouver Island’s native languages.

Nor was he actually trying to murder Hendrix back in 1961. He was just trying to send him a message, that’s all: don’t play an unplugged electric guitar in the barracks.

It was at Fort Ord, Calif., where Hukari and Hendrix were in U.S. army basic training. Run ragged at the end of the day, nerves frayed, most of the soldiers just wanted to crash, but Hendrix picked up his guitar, began to play.

“He was trying to be quiet, but we were trying to go to sleep,” Hukari recalls.

Hukari, several bunks away, snapped like the bottom E string on a Stratocaster. He jumped up from his bed, hollered something like, “I’m going to get you Hendrix!” and launched himself at the future rock god.

Happily for Hendrix, Hul’q’umi’num’ and humanity, three or four other soldiers tackled Hukari before his outstretched arms arrived at their intended destination. Hendrix himself was unperturbed.

“It didn’t faze him,” says Hukari. “He was always a cool person, pretty detached.”

Plunked behind a table in a campus cafeteria almost half a century later, Hukari sounds a little sheepish telling this story. Seated next to him, 35-year-old Tim Kulchyski looks amused.

Hukari is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. Kulchyski is projects co-ordinator for a language revitalization effort they have been working on for the past five years. They’re focusing on Hul’q’umi’num’ — spoken from just south of Duncan to north of Nanaimo — as part of an effort that also involves another Salish tongue, Sencoten, which is found on the Saanich Peninsula.

While the six bands belonging to the Hul’q’umi’num’ Treaty Group include more than 6,000 people on Vancouver Island, fewer than 100 speak the language fluently. An even smaller group — under a dozen, all aging — can be called upon to speak at the Big House ceremonies so vital to native culture.

Filming one of those rites — a naming ceremony — was part of Hukari and Kulchyski’s multimedia project, an attempt to teach younger aboriginals the language in the context of the culture with which it is inextricably woven.

“The naming ceremony is one of those places where the language is still used,” says Hukari, “and it’s one of the places where the younger people don’t understand what’s happening.” The ritual was also one of the least sensitive to film; other ceremonies, such as those used at funerals and initiations, were placed strictly off-limits by elders.

The concept — and importance — of naming is difficult to impart to non-natives. Names are carried through family lines, passed down only after much discussion. “It’s not something you can take, it’s something that must be given,” says Kulchyski, who grew up listening to his mother and grandmother speak Hul’q’umi’num’.

The whole naming thing is just one example of how language serves as a platform from which to get a different perspective on the world. Lose the language, lose the perspective, which is one reason linguists are in a race against time to capture disappearing dialects.

Anyway, the naming ceremony was just part of the larger revitalization project, which for Hukari was itself just part of a career devoted to aboriginal languages. After getting out of the army, he went into cultural anthropology, got a fellowship in linguistics at the University of Washington and — having decided to spend his life near saltwater — arrived at the University of Victoria’s linguistics department in 1971. He started working on Hul’q’umi’num’ around 1974, eventually developed a native language training program at the request of the Cowichan Tribes.

He regrets the oral history that slipped away back in the 1970s. “I should have been spending much more of my time recording stories.” Still, as long as there’s an ember glowing, the fire isn’t dead. “The ideal would be to keep the whole language alive,” he said. “If you could teach one person, that would keep the language alive for another 50 years or so.”

What comes to mind as he talks this way is that it is a fragile thread that connects past to present, whether it’s aboriginal culture or family history. With ties so tenuous, where would Hul’q’umi’num’ be had random circumstance (say, throttling Jimi Hendrix) sent Hukari down a different path, or had Island aboriginals not made the effort to stop their past from vanishing?

Just a reminder of how easy it is for unsung songs to be lost forever.


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