B.C. natives sing praises of new book

Published February 1, 2003

The Kwak’wala Hymnal has arrived and is expected to be a hot item up and down the coast of Vancouver Island.

On Dec. 18 at Christ Church in Alert Bay, B.C., native and non-native parishioners alike had a Christmas hymn sing in Kwak’wala, the native language of north Vancouver Island, made possible because of the brand new hymnals.

Produced last October, the 1,000 hymnals for the natives of Vancouver Island, have already been tagged as too few by Andrea Sanborn, acting executive director of the U’mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay.

“Everybody is really excited about them,” she said. “It was really needed. The students were learning a new orthography (writing system) and were unable to read the old Kwak’wala one.”

Older people, she added, had learned the earlier Boaz type of orthography, “but it wasn’t complete enough to handle our language.” The result was that the old and the young Kwak’wala-speaking people could not sing from the same hymn book.

Out of this problem was borne the Anglican hymnal project, which some people call integral in the fight to stop the loss of the Kwak’wala language. The hymnal was five years in the making, with funding from the Anglican healing and reconciliation fund, the Anglican Foundation, Canadian Forces chapel offerings and fundraisers in Victoria and Parksville, B.C., by Aboriginal Neighbours, a group of non-native Anglican activists

Hymnals are now being distributed to outlying villages by boat and plane up and down the coast, Ms. Sanborn said.

“I wish I had the resources to buy some more (hymnals). I’m going to run short,” said Ms. Sanborn, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.

This hymnal is important, she said, because it provides both the old and new orthography, enabling people to sing such old Anglican standards as Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross and Jesus Bids Us Shine. Most native Christians on north Vancouver Island are Anglicans, she said.

The project dates back to 1997, when Aboriginal Neighbours invited Peggy Svanvik, an elder of the ‘Namgis First Nation, to speak at the synod of the diocese of British Columbia. Ms. Svanvik spoke of the need to encourage young people in native communities to learn about their history and culture. “She noted that it was by singing hymns that she relearned her language,” said Ms. Gillie, co-ordinator of Aboriginal Neighbours.

After Ms. Svanvik mentioned the need for funding for a new hymnal, the Neighbours group helped identify funding sources and prepare the proposals.

The result was a $6,800 grant from the Anglican Foundation, $6,000 from the healing and reconciliation fund, $500 from the Canadian Forces chapel offerings and $1,300 raised by Aboriginal Neighbours groups with hymn sings in Victoria and Parksville.

The project translated 57 hymns presently found in the Anglican church Kwak’wala Hymnal into the modern orthography used by the U’mista Cultural Society, the tribal schools and the public schools in Northern Vancouver Island.

Ms. Sanborn estimates that 7,500 people up and down the coast speak or are familiar with the language.

The project, Ms. Gillie wrote in a letter to the Journal, “is a wonderful story of co-operation by so many people and agencies ? It is impossible to describe the enormous amount of work done by the small staff at U’mista.”

According to the U’mista Cultural Society, less than nine per cent of the Kwakwaka’wakw people can speak their language. The hymnal project is just one small piece of the effort to reverse the disappearance of Kwak’wala, Ms. Sanborn said. Other efforts by the U’mista Cultural Society include the development of an orthography to help standardize the teaching of Kwak’wala. Now, the society’s alphabet sheets, language books and tapes are being used by all the tribal schools and the public school system in the North Island.

Meanwhile, the Kwak’wala Hymnal is being distributed through the cultural society “when we hear of someone going to a community, to go clam digging or just returning by plane or boat – we ask them to take a box in for us.” That is how the community of Kingcome got its new hymnals recently, Ms. Sanborn said.

“A woman came into the office and mentioned she was going home in a few days, if it stopped snowing long enough. She took a box of hymnals,” Ms. Sanborn said. “I was telling them in their church about the new hymnals when I visited there in November. They were excited, and asked us how much they owed us and were so surprised when I said ‘nothing. They are free.'”

Non-natives also seem eager to use the hymnals, she said. “I’ve seen many of them reading along in church and then they memorize the words and sing with us,” she said.

The native people of Alert Bay and the Anglican church have a long history together. According to the hymnal’s preface, Rev. Alfred James Hall, who developed an early orthography for the native people, relocated his newly established Anglican mission from Fort Rupert to Alert Bay around 1878.

Mr. Hall supervised the building of a new church and held the first service on Christmas Day, 1892. The building still stands and a centennial window shows Christ Church itself, the former St. Michael’s residential school, St. George’s hospital, the mission ship Columbia and a ‘Namgis canoe, the first mode of transportation used by Mr. Hall. The preface concludes, “We would like to dedicate this hymnal to our ancestors who chose to encompass both cultures in their lives. Gilakas’la (thank you and good-bye).”


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