British Columbia

'I'm 84 years old and rapping': Elder helps bring Haida language to new generation as one half of rap duo

Haida Nation elder Jiixa and Julia Weder, who was adopted into the Haida Eagle Clan, write and perform rap songs in the Haida language, which has only two dozen fluent speakers left, according to the nation's council.

Jiixa, 84, and adopted clan member Julia Weder, 25, formed the group Siijuu Jaadas last year

Haida Eagle Clan elder Jiixa (Gladys Vandal), right, and Julia Weder, who was adopted into the clan last July, use rap to help preserve the Haida language. (Submitted by Julia Weder)

A Haida Gwaii duo is promoting the beauty of an endangered Indigenous language in a unique way — by singing rap songs.

Jiixa (Gladys Vandal), an elder of the Haida Eagle Clan, teamed up with Julia Weder last December to form the rap group Siijuu Jaadas, which means "cool ladies" in the Haida language. 

Jiixa says she loves performing rap songs. 

"I always think I'm a girl — I'm 84 years old and rapping," she told CBC's Matt Allen. 

Jiixa, a Haida language teacher in Skidegate, B.C., is one of nine core members of the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, who received an honourary Doctor of Law degree from Vancouver Island University in June 2019 for their efforts to preserve the language. 

According to the Haida Nation council, the language has only two dozen fluent speakers left.

Weder, 25, is of Greek and Croatian ancestry and grew up in Haida Gwaii. She says she learned the Haida language through volunteering with the immersion program — where she and Jiixa cooked meals together — and by taking classes as an employee of the Skidegate Health Centre.

After becoming close friends, Jiixa adopted Weder into the clan in July 2021. 

In Haida culture, if a member wants to adopt a non-Indigenous person, they will normally consult with the clan's chief and their own relatives. Adoptions are often celebrated with potlatches and adoptees are expected to proactively contribute to building the Haida Nation.

Jiixa says she asked Weder's parents whether she could adopt the young woman.

"She fits in nicely [in the Haida culture]," Jiixa said. "I told myself: 'I could use her as a daughter.'"

Weder, who took the name Skaak'aadang Jaad after joining the Haida Eagle Clan, says she considers Jiixa her surrogate grandmother.

Jiixa pictured with Weder and her parents. Weder says she considers Jiixa her surrogate grandmother. (Submitted by Julia Weder)

Writing Haida rap songs

Weder says they came up with the idea of writing and singing rap songs while watching music videos.

"She turned to me [and said] we should write a rap song ... And then we did," she said.

The pair have produced three songs to date, two of which are rap: Hala ga taa, meaning "come and eat," and Vankuuva id gwii X̲anjuudal, "travelling to Vancouver."

Both are posted on YouTube with subtitles in Xaayda Kil, the Skidegate dialect of the Haida language, and their English translation.

Weder says they use words being taught in the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program for their lyrics, based on ideas they come up with during their daily lives.

"The lyrics mostly come when we're out and about driving in the car or eating a meal," she said.

"Sometimes I pull out the recorder on my phone and I say, 'Let's chat about this next video we're going to make.'"

Weder says teaching and learning the Haida language is vital in healing the intergenerational trauma that First Nations have experienced under colonization.

"Language can unlock those connections to ancestors that people would have otherwise lost," said Weder, who also co-founded the Haida Gwaii Media Collective to help promote Haida culture through digital media.

"It's incredible the importance of bringing language back into people's lives and families."

Jiixa agrees.

"We want our children to grow up and learn their culture and their language and know where they came from," she said. 

"There's so much reason why the language and culture is so important."


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Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story identified the group as 'Jaadas Siijuu'. The correct name is 'Siijuu Jaadas'.
    Mar 23, 2022 9:23 PM PT

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Julia Weber is producing a film series about Haida history and language, which has been removed. In fact, the film series is focused more on climate justice and community resilience.
    Mar 23, 2022 9:44 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winston Szeto

Digital journalist

Winston Szeto is a journalist with CBC News based in Kelowna, B.C. in the unceded territories of the Syilx. He writes stories about new immigrants and LGBTQ communities. He has contributed to CBC investigative journalism programs Marketplace and The Fifth Estate. Winston speaks Cantonese and Mandarin fluently and has a working knowledge of German and Japanese. He came to Canada in 2018 from Hong Kong, and is proud to be Canadian. Send him tips at winston.szeto@cbc.ca.

With files from Matt Allen and Daybreak North

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