Ditidaht places project krissy edgar
Krissy Edgar looks out over the Pacific Ocean. Screenshot from the Ditidaht Places Project on YouTube
Cowichan Valley Vancouver Island

Ditidaht students map the contours of language and land

High school students are reconnecting with their vast traditional territories through a digital mapping project.
Ali Pitargue June 30, 2020

Nearly twenty kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the marine territories of Ditidaht First Nation, a boat full of students headed toward a vast expanse of sea and sky.

“You get out there and it’s just ocean all around you,” recalls Krissy Edgar. “It’s definitely not for people who have motion sickness.”

Edgar took the trip with fellow students of Ditidaht Community School. Their destination was a place called ƛ̓ušiiʔaaʔaq, or Swiftsure. It’s known for fishing, but on this trip the students were hunting for knowledge. You can hear Edgar pronounce the place name in a video from the trip. It’s a word borrowed from the Makah language, meaning “shallow.”

Krissy Edgar stands before her classmates and shares the things she learned about ƛ̓ušiiʔaaʔaq, an offshore fishing spot. Screenshot from the Ditidaht Places Project on YouTube

Swiftsure is one of the places that the students explored as part of the Ditidaht Places Project. The students researched various locations in the Ditidaht territories and pinned them on an interactive online map. The map features the names of the places along with the students’ research findings.

The students each chose a location, consulted historical documents and interviewed Ditidaht elders before they got to venture out to explore the traditional places for themselves. The hope is for the project to grow every year, as more students contribute their research and knowledge. 

Edgar, who graduated from high school last week, says that travelling to Swiftsure and other Ditidaht locations helped her better connect with the land. “We got to go out and actually see the places that we studied, not just read about them and look at pictures.”

Edgar says she chose Swiftsure because it was a favourite fishing spot of her father’s. It is a prime location to catch halibut and salmon, she says. 

A screenshot of the Ditidaht Places Project map. Swiftsure, or ƛ̓ušiiʔaaʔaq, is the offshore pin.

The project is an opportunity for students to get better acquainted with their heritage and the Ditidaht language. The students were able to access knowledge pertaining to Ditidaht traditional uses and history. They learned about the backstories behind how Ditidaht places got their names, which were inspired by what the places look like and what they were used for.

“It was really interesting learning a lot of our history, where we come from and what life used to be like and seeing how different life is now compared to then,” says Edgar.

More than a century of colonial policies have severed Ditidaht people from their land, language, history and culture. Once scattered through villages and camps along the coast, along Nitinat Lake and inland to Cowichan Lake, the Ditidaht community now primarily resides in the village of Malachan, at the head of Nitinat Lake, more than an hour’s drive by logging road from the nearest pavement. 

The Ditidaht Places Project aims to reconnect Ditidaht students and community members to their vast unceded territories, and to their language. 

Ditidaht Elder Dorothy Shepherd practices the the Ditidaht language with a student. Screenshot from the Ditidaht Places Project on YouTube

Ditidaht Elder Dorothy Shepherd, an advisor to the project, says it’s exciting to hear young people say the names of places in the Ditidaht language. “Our people have pretty much lost a lot of the language and a lot of the place names. To me, it’s very interesting and important for our youth to start to learn.”

Shepherd is one of just a handful of fluent speakers of the Ditidaht language. Students interviewed her for their projects, asking questions about their chosen place, the meaning of its name and different ways it may be pronounced. 

The legacy of the residential school system, which forced generations of First Nations children to learn and speak English, is largely responsible for the dwindling use of the Ditidaht language. Shepherd says she managed to retain her language skills because her parents were older than her peers’ and spoke it in their household. 

Shepherd says she was eager to teach students about the place name meanings. “Some places were more important because that’s where they might’ve had training for whaling and hunting, and to be speakers. Every place had their own special gift that they used or taught or learned.”

Ditidaht Elder Jack Thompson points to the village of Waayaa on a map. Screenshot from the Ditidaht Places Project on YouTube

Another student, Josie Thompson, studied the village of Waayaa, or Whyac, meaning “high place.” Her Grandpa Jack grew up in Waayaa, and Thompson made sure to ask him about what his childhood was like, she says. “It meant a lot to me because it was where my grandpa grew up.”

Thompson says she wants to relay what she learned to her sister when they hike the West Coast Trail, which crosses Waayaa at its midpoint.

This is Shepherd’s hope — that students will pass on what they have learned. “That’s awesome, if they could keep things alive in that manner.”

Shepherd says she hopes that community efforts to revitalize the language will lead to more community members becoming fluent. “The really young — kindergarten and up — can start retaining it and start to use it outside in the playground. My hope is that someone, someday, will stand up, teach it and speak it.”

Edgar says she especially valued what she learned from her interactions with the elders. “I think knowledge sticks a bit better when it comes from somebody you really respect. It’s better to listen to them rather than read about it after they’ve passed away.”

She says she will always remember what it was like to be surrounded by Swiftsure’s waters, and she is eager to share what she learned with pride. When she interacts with hikers on the West Coast Trail, she wants to feel confident to share her knowledge of the territory, she says. “I’m from here and I believe I should know about this.”

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