The cast performing Jealous Moon(Credit: One Island Media)
As Indigenous Elders pass, how can younger generations best learn and increase their fluency with traditional languages? Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta believes applied theatre techniques can be an important part of the language-learning equation, and this month’s Indigenous Theatre Festival Reawakening Language on Stage offers a glimpse into how performance can powerfully augment classroom education.
Running at the Phoenix Theatre from September 16-18 in collaboration with the Hul’q’umi’num’ Language and Culture Society (HLCS), Hul’q’umi’num’ Language Academy and other university partners, the festival offers a weekend of performances, workshops and discussions aimed at exchanging research-based knowledge on the best practices for using theatre as a tool for this essential project.
“Language revitalization is the most important thing,” says Hul’q’umi’num’ speaker and Cowichan Tribes member Tara I. Morris, a PhD candidate in theatre and linguistics who is working with Sadeghi-Yekta on the festival. “We’re fighting for our language—we don’t accept it to be extinct—so we’re organizing and preserving and revitalizing with the younger generation. This festival offers a beautiful way to create space and help keep the language going . . . people need to know how hard we’re working.”
Sedeghi-Yekta (right) rehearses with community participants tsatassaya | Tracey White and suy’thlumaat | Kendra-Anne Page (Credit: One Island Media)
A different way of learning
Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta has been engaged with this project since 2015 and her work has been supported by a number of SSHRC grants, including a new three-year Partnership Development Grant with UVic linguistics professor Sonya Bird as co-lead. “[This festival] is about inspiring other communities who are struggling to maintain their languages,” she explains. “We’re hoping to offer a spark for people to see that it’s possible to learn traditional languages through alternative ways—it doesn’t only have to be in classrooms.”
Sadeghi-Yekta was originally invited to participate by HLCS language specialist Joan Brown (now executive director of the Snuneymuxw First Nations) and SFU linguist Donna Gerdts, who were looking to find new ways to revitalize the Hul’q’umi’num’ language—which was traditionally spoken across a wide geographical area, ranging from now-Washington State and the Fraser Valley to the Gulf Islands and south-east Vancouver Island.
“Joan thought using theatre was a fantastic idea,” recalls Sadeghi-Yekta, a multi-lingual applied theatre practitioner whose international experience working with different cultures was ideally suited to this project. Given that performance has always been an integral part of Indigenous communities, theatre seemed an ideal fit for this project. “There was a steep learning curve on both sides to understand each other—both cultural protocols and the language of applied theatre—but the beauty of live theatre is you always start with your body, so we began by finding ways for participants to move past the discomfort of performing.”
Combining theatre techniques with community storytelling
Currently working with about 60 participants, Sadeghi-Yekta combines theatre-based techniques with community-inspired storytelling to help participants increase their fluency, focusing on nourishing a sense of excitement in speaking and performing only in Hul’q’umi’num’ . . . so festival audiences shouldn’t expect any subtitles.
“The whole point of the festival is that we want to celebrate Indigenous languages without translation,” she notes. “If we provide subtitles, the concentration towards Hul’q’umi’num’ could easily be gone. It’s a very complex language to learn.”
PhD candidate Morris—now co-director of the featured play Jealous Moon—has been involved with the project since 2019 in a variety of roles. “It’s been interesting being a student, learning the Hul’q’umi’num’ vocabulary for the play, acting it out and now helping teach and direct it,” she says.
Ironically, Morris’ grandmother—the late Theresa Thorne—helped create the Hul’q’umi’num’ dictionary and actually worked with SFU’s Gerdts years ago. “It’s such an honour to now be involved at this level,” she says.
kwustunaat rehearsing the role of Owl in Jealous Moon (Credit: One Island Media)
Engaging younger generations
Sadeghi-Yekta estimates there were over 50 fluent Hul’q’umi’num’ speakers when she began this project—a number that has now sadly dwindled to less than 30 over the COVID years.
“Our Elders are passing so quickly that we’re trying to make sure we find ways to expedite the process and engage the younger generations,” she says. “The great thing about this project is that it inspires specifically younger participants to commit to the learning of the language—and to feel confident in speaking it—which is where it all starts.”
Given that the festival has been twice-delayed due to COVID, she is excited to finally bring Reawakening Language on Stage to campus. In addition to the performances and workshops, the festival will also include important life lessons about persisting, building confidence, overcoming adversity and helping others. Expect heartfelt messages of sorrow and reconciliation, loss and hope, and the realization that Indigenous languages are not just an object of study but a means of artistic expression—with the ultimate hope of galvanizing a new generation of Indigenous performers.
A full weekend of performances
As well as a September 16 full-cast performance of the original play Jealous Moon—written by Hul’q’umi’num’ community member Chris Alphonse—festival participants include Dene director and playwright Deneh’Cho Thompson (USask), Education Leadership master’s candidate Yvonne Wallace of the Lil’wat Nation (UBC), indigenous/Xwulmuxw studies professor Laura Cranmer (VIU), indigenous education, Victoria’s Visible Bodies Collective, plus theatre PhD Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde (UVic) and Fine Arts Indigenous Resurgence Coordinator Karla Point.
“Participants always tell me that they’ve learned to play again through applied theatre, that it’s one of the few times they can laugh again without focusing on other worries, ” says Sadeghi-Yekta. “They say that it’s brought the community more together as well—and that’s a huge compliment for the art.”