In the struggle to preserve Indigenous languages, community radio stations have emerged as a key tool to help mother tongues that were crushed under the weight of colonialism flourish once again.
What was once forbidden and punished by the Canadian government — the speaking of one’s own language — can be heard with a turn of the dial.
Many radio stations in Indigenous communities feature a sprinkling of language lessons, but two in particular are making it their programming mandate to heavily push out language content.
The Nuxalk Radio station, in British Columbia’s beautiful Bella Coola valley, has become a model of sorts, delivering language programming that aims to uplift and empower the Nuxalkmc, that count 893 members living in Bella Coola.
The station was launched amid the Idle No More movement, when a group of people came together to figure out how Nuxalk could participate in the resistance, and their plan homed in on saving their language. They had only 11 elder speakers left at that time, and four years later, there are four fluent first-language speakers.
The radio station dedicates almost half of its airtime to language learning. The hosts are taught by a fluent speaker on how to speak Nuxalk, and then share what they’ve learned on-air. Programming includes basic word and definition, and there’s a daily lesson with the alphabet.
“Nuxalk language is really challenging to pronounce,” says Banchi Hanuse, the station’s manager. “There’s a lot of glottal throat sounds so learning the alphabet is almost like step one.”
They use First Voices, a web-based Indigenous language tool administered by the First Peoples Cultural Council, which assists in the documentation and education of Indigenous languages, and hosts 47 languages in B.C. All the hosts play audio or look up a word from First Voices, says Hanuse. Nuxalk Radio also airs archival language recordings, such as elders speaking with anthropologists, linguists, and ethnobotanists many years ago.
The hard work has begun to pay off in the community. Hanuse says that because of residential schools that removed children from Indigenous communities and forbade them from speaking their languages, there’s almost a subconscious shame in speaking one’s mother tongue. Hearing it on the radio has made the Nuxalk people more comfortable in speaking the language to each other.
“You do hear it a lot more, basically things like hello, thank you, good morning, you can hear people embracing it and introducing themselves in Nuxalk,” says Hanuse. “It’s a major psychological shift that’s happening in the community, as part of who we are again, proud of the language.”
In addition, they’ve passed along their knowledge of operating a language-focused radio station to other nations, helping the neighbouring Tsilhqot’in and Heiltsuk nations to get their radio stations started.
Read more: Vice News