She was called '702' and punished for speaking Haida. Now Sphenia Jones is reclaiming her lost language

By the time she was 11, Jones said she was sent to residential school in Edmonton where she was punished for speaking in any language other than English.
In residential school, each child was numbered, and referred to by their assigned number, according to actor Sphenia Jones. She said she was called '702.' (George Lawson. Niijang Xyaalas Productions)
Listen6:37

Growing up, Sphenia Jones wasn't exposed to much of her Haida culture or language. 

Her grandfathers were told it was against the law to pass it down, and that they would be arrested if they taught it to the next generation. 

It was like prison- Sphenia Jones

By the time she was 11, Jones said she was sent to residential school in Edmonton where she was punished for speaking in any language other than English.

She recalled talking to another girl, who was teaching her a few words in Cree. "I had three of my fingernails taken out on account of it. [After that] I was too scared to talk any language really." 

"It was like prison," Jones said from her home in Masset, Haida Gwaii. "They had bars on the window and stuff like that. They didn't use our names there."

Instead, each child was numbered, and referred to by their assigned number, according to Jones. She said she was called "702." 

Preserving her culture

But now, she's one of many working to preserve a culture that was almost eliminated.

Jones is one of the actors in Edge of the Knife, or Sgaaway K'uuna in the Haida language, the first feature film made entirely in Haida.

The film was shot on Haida Gwaii after locals went through intensive language training. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall but debuted earlier on Haida Gwaii. 

The Haida language is spoken fluently by fewer than two dozen people. The film is part of efforts to revitalize the language and recover what was almost lost.

I'm so grateful that it's not going to die.- Sphenia Jones

"I was really, really afraid that we were going to have a dying culture," Jones said.

She still thinks about how she and her family had to put cardboard up in the windows to make sure the government wouldn't see them Haida dancing and singing. 

But she also thinks about how her 19 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren are learning alongside her.

"They're learning the Haida language," she said. "I'm so grateful that it's not going to die."