It is estimated that one indigenous language dies every two weeks. The Hesquiaht First Nation Reserve is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The nation has twelve fluent speakers remaining—a direct result of over one-hundred years of residential schooling. Layla Rorick, chuutsqah, is a newly fluent speaker. Her fluency was hard-earned and throughout the many years to acquire it, people told her to give up. They told her that learning the language was a lost cause.
Chuutsqah did not give up. People stepped forward and helped her. Her first mentor was the late Lawrence Paul. She credits his generosity and endless patience with her first advancement in leaning the language. His name, kiicinýahs, comes from their ancestors who were brother and sister. He shared this with chuutsqah in their third year of mentorship when she could fully appreciate the significance. With the support of Lawrence Paul and Angela Galligos, his niece, chuustqah progressed from being a non-speaker to gain adult speaking fluency. This was the culmination of a three-year Mentor-Apprenticeship. She is now an advanced-speaking language learner able to teach immersion methods.
Since 2010, chuutsqah has not gone more than a month without offering free and open Hesquiaht language programming. With nine fluent speakers, she co-hosts eleven hours of on-line language instruction each week. Her courageous efforts have resulted in thirty-seven certified Hesquiaht language instructors, completing 140 hours of language instruction. There are 100 committed language students.
There is another layer to chuustqah’s work. She says the language is only alive if it is being spoken. She has discovered the need to create both safety and value in speaking the language. This will come through healing. This year she is adding a new program to revitalize Heqsquiaht women singing their songs. Today only men sing the songs in public. Chuutsqah believes this is a century-old colonial legacy. She is working to change that and bring the women’s voices back.
Chuutsqah understands that her work connects her to the generations before her and to the generations after. The generations ahead will be the benefactors of her courage.