Christie Lee Charles sings her baby girl to sleep every night. Unlike the usual mom, she does it in a language only a handful of people in the world know.
Charles, 27, speaks the Musqueam dialect of the Coast Salish First Nations language family.
She learned the language at the feet of her great-uncle and later, as a high school student, behind a desk at the University of British of Columbia’s First Nations Languages Program.
Now she’s taking it to the stage, rapping in her Musqueam language.
“It makes me feel a lot more connected to who I am and where I come from and it also makes me feel stronger inside too,” she said.
Sharing the language with younger family members, and youth in her community, is part of Charles’ motivation for fusing it with hip hop culture.
“It’s not just in my community too,” said Charles, who’s been rapping in her Aboriginal dialect for a few years now.
“There’s a hunger in youth …to learn a lot more of their culture.”
First Nations communities across Canada are trying to revive their unique languages. Right now, many dialects teeter on the brink of extinction.
First Nations communities in B.C. speak 32 different languages, comprised of 59 unique dialects.
More than half of Aboriginal languages in the country reside in B.C., according to a 2010 report from the First Peoples’ Heritage, Languages and Culture Council.
There are only 278 fluent speakers of all three Halkomelem dialects. Halkomelem, an English term, refers to upriver, island and downriver – or Musqueam – dialects.
Like most Aboriginal languages, the Musqueam dialect of Halkomelem is an oral language and was not traditionally written down. It boasts 22 consonant sounds not heard in English.
The Disappearing Languages Project, from The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and National Geographic, identified B.C. as one of five geographic regions in the world where languages are disappearing rapidly.
The loss of Aboriginal language began when Europeans came to Canada.
The decline continued past colonization through government policies, such as residential schools which further stamped out many dialects in place of the dominant language – English.
Many Aboriginal languages have already been lost forever. In B.C., eight languages are gone – no documentation remains.
These losses have sparked efforts across the country to record, preserve and teach First Nations languages.
Generations in the classroom
Patricia Shaw is the director of the UBC First Nations Languages Program. Charles, her father and her mother took classes through the program.
Multiple generations in First Nations language classrooms are common, she said.
Classes typically take place on the Musqueam Indian Reserve, which makes it easier for community members – young and old alike – to attend.
“It really helps build bridges across what might otherwise be a generation gap,” Shaw said.
“One of the painfully poignant things about loss of language is that the elders who are left don’t have anyone to talk to.”
She said she’s impressed with Charles’ blend of popular culture with the Musqueam language.
“The really big challenge is taking it out of the classroom and into your lives,” she said.
Charles laughs when she thinks about her dad’s language-learning tactics.
“My dad studied it – a lot,” she said. “I’d come here on the weekend and he’d be cleaning his house, but he’d be blasting his language tapes.
“Instead of music coming out of someone’s house it was language.”
Charles’ dad, Henry, now holds the position of First Nations Storyteller in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library.
For him, it’s about keeping his culture alive through language.
“Musqueam is a living breathing…being,” he said.
The desire to maintain language is nothing new to Charles’ family. Her great-grandparents were instrumental in recording the oral history of the Musqueam people.
Charles learned the language from her great-uncle. His death prompted her to return to her linguistic roots.
“It wasn’t until he passed away that I went back into the language and started studying it a lot more because I realized I had to after he was gone.”
Charles is doing more than learning – she’s sharing the language and living its teachings. She’s using an ancient language in an entirely new and provocative way on stage using hip hop.
She plans to finish her education in Aboriginal Studies at Langara College. She began there a few years ago, before taking time off to do an internship in government and have her baby.
Since the birth of her daughter, Kimora, Charles is toying with a new idea – creating and performing children’s music in Musqueam.
She’s already practicing; she talks to her baby girl in Musqueam every day and soothes her to sleep with modern Musqueam lullabies every night.