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84-year-old Haida matriarch raps the language to pass it on

Language teacher and pupil form dynamic musical pair
Elder Jiixa (Gladys Vandal) and Julia Weder formed the rap group Siijuu Jaadas, meaning cool ladies in Haida, just over a year ago. (Supplied photo: Julia Weder)

A musical duo from Haida Gwaii is passing on the traditional language to the next generation by rapping.

Elder Jiixa (Gladys Vandal) and Julia Weder formed the rap group Siijuu Jaadas, meaning cool ladies in Haida, just over a year ago.

“The idea sprouted from watching a New Year’s Eve special show a couple of years ago where someone was rapping, and Jiixa turned to me on the couch and said, ‘hey, we should write a rap,’” Weder said. “I just burst into laughter [and said] yes absolutely. Let’s do that.”

Jiixa, 84, was born and raised in Skidegate and has been a teacher of the Haida language for more than 25 years, her daughter, Brenda Vandal, said.

The Elder first learned about the popularity of the rap genre through her five grandchildren.

“The Haida language is very important to me, and I like to get it out there somehow so the younger kids will get involved,” Jiixa told The Northern View on March 24.

Teaching the language to the next generation is her life’s work, Vandal said.

“So many people are interested, and I’m sad for that because there are only a few of us fluent Elders left. We have to get the language out somehow,” Jiixa said.

Along with the few remaining Elders who can pass the language on, Jiixa teaches traditional songs and also translates modern English songs into Haida.

“They actually got honoured through VIU (Vancouver Island University), which was really special. They got their honorary doctorate through the language program because they put so much work into preserving the Haida language,” Vandal said.

She said they are reviving the Haida language by passing it to the next generation.

“I think it’s really cute that she put her mind to [rapping], and then they just made it happen,” her daughter said.

Making the songs is a team effort that started when Jiixa and Weder met volunteering at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, where Elders come together to record and preserve the Haida language.

“We became close, very quickly. I think we each sort of adopted each other as a family member,” Weder said. “I started learning it by just being around Jiixa because she teaches her helpers. She teaches everyone around her. She’s such a giving person and willing teacher.”

Weder has since been adopted into a Skidegate Eagle clan Naa ‘Yuuwans X̲aaydaG̲aay (Big House People).

“I see my adoption as, first of all, an enormous honour and a gift not to be taken for granted. It also fills me with a sense of responsibility to the people and the land of the Haida Nation,” she said. “My adoption was a transformative moment in my life, and I carry the gift of responsibility with me wherever I go.”

When the two first began recoding rap tracks, it was very rough around the edge, but once the pair became comfortable on camera the raps began to flow, Weder said.

Their musical process is honed with Jiixa writing the lyrics and Weder transcribing them.

Weder takes the lead signing, and Jiixa corrects pronunciation and intonation. After the track is ready to record, they film the music videos with whatever is on hand, often filming in their living room or on an iPhone while on the road. Weder is responsible for mixing the music then editing the audio and video together.

“People seem to love it. We’ve gotten a lot of positive community responses every time we post a new video. It really is heart-warming to see the response,” Weder said.

The recent spotlight on the pair is nothing new for Jiixa who is a master weaver and has toured the world with her craft. She is also a much-respected Haida matriarch, Weder said.

Fame or notoriety is not the message that matters for the pair. The message is about sharing the Haida language with more people.

“Long live the Haida language,” Jiixa said.

Norman Galimski | Journalist
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