A reawakening of the kwak'wala language




The beautiful sound of kwak’wala flows from the mouths of fluent speakers, filling the air and my heart. Among our Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, our speakers are our treasures—carrying knowledge from generations past. Our dream and purpose at Nawalakw is to reawaken kwak’wala in the hearts and minds of our people. With a growing sense of urgency, we are working to transfer ancient knowledge to our ga̱nga̱nana̱m, our children, as the number of fluent kwak’wala speakers decreases and we race to capture our language, which is at risk of disappearing.

In 2017, ’Max̱waya̱lidzi, K’odi Nelson was working as a tour guide bringing a group of tourists through our Musǥa̱makw Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w territory and into the Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w area at Hada (Ahta River). The whirring noise of heli-loggers buzzed above and he realized our sacred river was being stripped of its resources without our knowledge. “It was a lightbulb moment,” K’odi says, “Industry was in our territory doing whatever they wanted because nobody was here.”

Hada river estuary

At the Hada river estuary lies the ancient homelands of the first ancestor and the origins of our Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w people—T̓seḵa̱me’, the great cedar man. Hada is a sacred place to our people and a meaningful part of who we are. An important vision was born that day, and Hada was the perfect place to build a facility to create presence and provide protection for generations to come. Nawalakw is now the home of our language and culture facility, and a gathering place for our people.

“Our rivers were never meant to be alone” is one of the teachings of our great gig̱a̱me’ and dear loved one, Chief Robert Joseph, who offers his wisdom, presence and loving energy to help bring this vision of Nawalakw to life.

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A facility for language and culture camps

Following an important blessing ceremony, Nawalakw broke ground at Hada, the site of our culture camp, in 2020. Hi’ma̱nis ḵ̓aḵ̓ut̓ła̱’at̓si, our 2600 sq ft facility for language and culture camps, was completed in 2022. Since then, we have welcomed 450 camp participants to Hada to join our language team and fluent speakers in an immersive week of bak̕wa̱mk̓ala (language), culture, and teachings at this sacred place. Participants, mainly children and youth from local schools and communities, arrive at Hada with their teachers and chaperones with curiosity, oftentimes nerves, and a little shyness. The children also bring light, laughter, joy, and magical hope to our facility and our work.

They immediately start learning kwak’wala through fun games, songs, and dances led by our language team leads ḵaminawadzi, Pewi Alfred, K’wak’wabalas, Gloria Hunt, and Gayax̱a̱lasa̱me’, Darryll Dawson. By the end of the first day, they begin to learn how to introduce themselves in kwak’wala in a way that is customary for our Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people.

The following day when Elders and fluent speakers arrive at Hada, the participants, with their language leads, greet the boats and sing our welcome song—creating an instant bond between youth and elders alike.

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A week of growth, learning, and bonding at Hada

For the rest of the week, participants spend time with Elders, playing games, and learning how to live in a community setting where everyone pitches in to support one another. Lessons on the land, to identify and harvest traditional foods and medicines, are interspersed with hikes to the waterfall, canoeing, and chilly dips in the river. Before our eyes, growth, often in unexpected ways, is happening. By Friday, life-long bonds are formed, emotions are high, and it’s not uncommon for kids to be asking to stay for a few more days.

The magic of Hada, the sense of belonging, and the increased confidence in our children and youth bring our mission into focus. “Our purpose is our children. They keep us striving to be better every day and remain the heart of what we are doing at Nawalakw,” shares ’Max̱waya̱lidzi, K’odi Nelson.

Nawalakw remains focused on fluency, building connections between our children, youth and speakers, and a dedicated full-time language learning initiative including six language apprentices. There are also training opportunities for our staff and community, youth employment programs, and the provision of sustenance for our participants and communities through regular harvests from an impressive two-and-a-half-acre small-scale farm in ’Ya̱lis, Alert Bay.

We are working to capture and share our stories through an in-house media team of storytellers that showcase the beauty of our people, the importance of our language and culture, and its deep connection to our a̱wi’nagwis (land).

For 10,000 years Hada was a gathering place for our people. Our vision is to bring our people back and be the first place on earth where kwak’wala is once again spoken fluently by children and elders alike.