Day 6

'It's a way of existing': How Edge of the Knife is helping keep the Haida language from extinction

'Edge of the Knife' is the first feature film told entirely in the Haida language. First-time actor Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan says the experience of shooting the movie was a revelation.

Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan is a first-time actor in the first feature film told entirely in Haida

A screenshot of Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan in the film Edge of The Knife. (Groundswell Productions)

Filming Edge of the Knife was an overwhelming experience for Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan — and in many different ways. 

She'd never acted before. She was delivering her lines in a language she'd only learned just a few years ago. And she was helping her fellow cast members, many of whom still didn't speak Haida, to try to do the same. 

"We're all out of our comfort zones, pushing ourselves to do the language justice, and to really give it that respect and correct delivery that it deserved," Ryan said in an interview with Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

Haida, which is classified as endangered by UNESCO, only has about two dozen fluent speakers and Edge of the Knife, also known as Sgaawaay K'unna, is the first feature film told entirely in Haida.

It's not just a language. It's a way of existing.- Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan

Edge of the Knife is set in the 19th century and follows two large families as they meet at their annual fishing camp on the shores of Haida Gwaii. Tragedy strikes when a man named Adiits'ii, played by Tyler York, causes the death of a child. As a result, Adiits'ii retreats into the wilderness.

The film's story is inspired by a traditional Haida legend about a man who becomes stranded on an island and is transformed into the character Gaagiid, or Wildman.

The film premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, and screened this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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First-time actor and language coach

Everyone cast of Edge of the Knife was a first-tme actor and many cast members were not fluent in Haida when they signed on to the film, so Ryan helped coach them in the language.

But there was a time, not that long ago, when she could barely understand Haida herself, let alone speak it.

Ryan recalls the day when she heard two people speaking Haida and realized how important it was for her to learn the language.

"I was just inspired by this interaction, and dedication, and commitment to existing in the language," she said.

After that, Ryan dedicated herself to learning how to speak Haida and got a job with the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP). There, she helped record and transcribe Haida words, which gave her consistent exposure to the language.

Now, six years later, she is set to soon graduate from the University of Northern British Columbia as a certified Haida language teacher, after which she'll take her skills to the classroom.

More than words

"It's not just a language," she said. "It's a way of existing. It's a way of interacting with self, and others and the environment." 

According to Ryan, Haida was traditionally learned orally, but in more recent years it has adopted a unified orthography and writing system.

She said being able to learn how to read the alphabet of the Haida language allowed her to pick up Haida really quickly.

On set, Ryan helped developed a language boot camp, pulling together all the different dialects of Haida and giving her fellow cast members a crash course on different pronunciations.

Ryan said seeing the film come together through the language, acting, costumes and sets made the shoot a life-changing experience.

"It was just 'whoa!' Like mind blowing," she said. "That was work and energy and effort and dedication. That's why we were there."

Since taking on the language, my life has taken a new path.-  Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan

Before getting the opportunity to be a part of Edge of the Knife, Ryan said it never occurred to her that Haida would be put into the spotlight in a film. She said she was too focused on learning how to speak the language and using it to connect with her ancestors.

"Since taking on the language, my life has taken a new path. I move forward with the language knowing I have everything I need because I'm supported by my ancestors," she said.

She added that she hopes this new film will continue to encourage others to take a similar path as her and embrace the Haida language. 

"This film, we hope to inspire this next generation that's going to carry it forward and start using it, and implementing it in our homes, and in our communities and in our daily conversation."


To hear the full conversation with Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page. 

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