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Documentation and analysis of Haisla and Henaaksiala


Language Haisla (ISO639-3:has), Henaaksiala (ISO639-3:)
Depositor Emmon Bach
Affiliation SOAS University of London
Location United States
Collection ID 0051
Grant ID MDP0102
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The primary purpose of the project underlying this collection was to gather and analyse new materials on Haisla and Henaaksiala, Northern Wakashan language varieties (dialects) of Kitamaat Village, British Columbia, concentrating on aspects of the language that have not been documented before, i.e. language use in a variety of cultural contexts: conversation, oral traditions that are still alive, traditional and contemporary contexts of work, oratory at feasts, and the like. This was aimed at getting more extensive materials on the present state of the languages, documentation of the differences between Haisla proper and Henaaksiala, and more documentation of sociolinguistic and cultural material. This last includes information on different genres of oral tradition, as well as on various common conversational contexts, and on domains of knowledge in different cultural spheres, both traditional and current.

A second aim was to check and amplify existing materials previously collected by Emmon Bach (from 1970 to the time of archiving).

A third aim was to obtain accurate linguistic histories of each Haisla consultant who had been involved in any stage of the research in Kitamaat Village. Many consultants are from multilingual families. There are close ties to Tsimshian communities, especially Hartley Bay to the southwest. Given the relative isolation of Haisla and Henaaksiala from other Wakashan languages, documentation of linguistic history is important in order to help identify the potential domains and degrees of language contact, areal influences, and so on.


Group represented

Haisla and Henaaksiala
The two language varieties are currently spoken in Kitamaat Village, British Columbia, Canada, with perhaps a few speakers in other communities and urban centers. The two closely related ways of talking (dialects) have their origins in the two areas of the traditional territories of the Haisla Nation: Kitamaat Haisla in and around the Kitimat Arm of the Douglas Channel and Henaaksiala in the Kitlope/Kemano areas of the Gardner Canal.
The only remaining fluent speakers of Haisla are in their sixties and above, probably considerably fewer than 100 individuals. Children no longer learn the language at home, although there have been continuing efforts by the community to retain and strengthen knowledge of the language, including five years of courses, sponsored by the University of Northern British Columbia, in Haisla given by Emmon Bach, in collaboration with Rose Robinson and Dora Robinson (two native speakers from the village), as well as Haisla classes in the village school, and occasionally in Mt Elizabeth secondary school in the town of Kitimat.


Language information

Haisla is a cover term for the languages spoken in Kitamaat Village in British Columbia. The village is located on the Kitimat Arm of the Douglas Channel, about 10 km from the town of Kitimat, B.C., which in turn is about 60 km SSE of Terrace, BC. Haisla is a member of the Wakashan group of languages. Other languages of this family are Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) and Kwakw’ala. Haisla is in sub-subgroup known as Upper North Wakashan, along with the languages Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) and Oowik’ala (Rivers Inlet). The southern branch (South Wakashan) includes languages of the west coast of Vancouver Island and Makah, the only member of the family in the present day Unites States. Haisla is the northernmost member of the larger family, Makah the southernmost. The population of the village is drawn from a number of older communities, grouped loosely into those near the present site of the Kitamaat Village (Cʼimaucʼa) and a group of communities along the Gardner Canal, including especially the Kitlope Valley. Accordingly there are two main varieties of Haisla: X̅aʼislakʼala (Haisla in the narrower sense) and X̅enaksialakʼala, identified with the Kitlope area.

The Haisla and Henaaksiala languages form with Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) and Ooweky’ala (Rivers Inlet) the Upper North Wakashan subbranch of Wakashan. The other North Wakashan languages are usually lumped together as Kwakw’ala (older usage: Kwakiutl). The community in Kitamaat Village is the northernmost member of the family, and is surrounded by unrelated languages: Tsimshianic to the north and west, and Haida beyond that, Carrier Athapaskan to the east, Bella Coola Salish (Nuxalk) to the south.

The Wakashan languages comprise Southern Wakashan and Northern Wakashan. They are located on Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, with one language, Makah, located at Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. The branches separated some three or four thousand years ago, in all likelihood. Languages of the southern branch, Nuchahnulth (Nootka), Ditidaht (Nitinat) were studied extensively by Edward Sapir and students (Haas, Swadesh), in the early half of the last century, and somewhat later Makah (William Jacobsen). From around 1900 into the first decades of the last century) Franz Boas and his coworker George Hunt (native speaker of Kwakw’ala) recorded and analyzed various languages and dialects of the north of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland under the name Kwakiutl, now generally referred to as Kwakw’ala. There has been a revival of interest and work on the languages in the last several decades. The Upper North Wakashan languages, including Haisla, have been the least well documented and studied, up until work by Bach on Haisla, Darin Howe on Ooweky’ala, Neville Lincoln and John Rath on Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) and Haisla.

The Pacific Northwest of North America is often cited as a prime example for areal studies (a “Sprachbund”) and richness of language diversity. In British Columbia alone there are seven distinct and arguably unrelated language families (where “unrelated” means: no undisputed proof of relatedness). Historical work on Wakashan has been done only sporadically and on special topics. The work envisaged in this grant proposal will form an indispensable component for detailed comparison of the North Wakashan languages and ultimately the whole family.


Special characteristics

The Upper North Wakashan languages are the least well documented Northern Wakashan languages. Haisla and Henaaksiala provide important clues to the history of the whole group, as the languages show significant resemblances to Kwakw’ala, not shared by the other two Upper North Wakashan languages Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) and Ooweky’ala (Rivers Inlet), and lack some important distinctive traits of the latter two. In addition, the vocabulary and structure of the languages show unique relations to other non-Wakashan languages of the area: Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Tsimshianic (Coast Tsimshian, Nisgha, Gitksan) as well as unidentified Athapaskan languages of the area. Cultural ties to these groups as well as Tlingit and Haida are reflected in lore, personal names, traditional stories, place-names. Much of this traditional knowledge is going fast, and should be documented and made accessible to the community and the outside world as soon as possible, naturally within appropriate legal and ethical limits. This knowledge is critical to the interpretation and understanding of the complex genetic and areally influenced substrates within this northernmost Wakashan language and will consequently be of immense value to the community as well as to the scientific world.


Collection contents

When complete, the collection will include

  • audio and video recordings
  • digital copies of paper records, such as transcriptions, translations and notebooks
  • digital copies of archival material from the Kitimat Centennial Museum and the Royal British Columbia Museum Archives (where possible and permissible)
  • electronic databases of texts, grammar notes, plants, animals, personal names, “chiefs’ names” and place names
  • a Haisla – English and English –Haisla practical dictionary, including morphological analyses of all words and key examples of usage
  • a non-technical handbook on the language, which contains a sketch of the language and various useful lists (roots, suffixes, paradigms, vocabularies)
  • three collections of texts, including glossaries with morphological analyses of all words
  • a descriptive grammar of the languages


Collection history

Existing documentation and previous work on the languages

Two linguists have worked in Kitamaat Village: Hein Vink (in the 1970’s) and Emmon Bach (for two summers in the early 1970’s and more extensively from 1989 to the present).

Hein Vink left behind a glossary and two separate sets of elementary lessons on spelling and Haisla language and has taped several stories.

Neville Lincoln and John Rath produced a dictionary of the language based on work with several speakers off-site and incorporating some material from Vink’s work. This pioneering dictionary is based mostly on work with a Henaaksiala speaker (the late Gordon Robertson) and is in a Haisla-to-English form. It contains a sketch of the phonology and a bit about inflectional forms, as well as a root list, and lists of derivates for each root. No morphological analyses of words are given. The dictionary has no English index or English-to-Haisla sections. One pervasive problem is that there is only sporadic indication of different forms for the Kitamaat and Kitlope varieties. For this reason and because of the circumstances of its production it has not found wide use in the local or wider linguist community, even though it contains much useful material.

One short text by Lincoln and Rath’s principal consultant Gordon Robertson has been published. The text is accompanied by extensive supplementary material.

Brian Compton prepared extensive materials on the ethnobotany of the communities, especially Henaaksiala, incorporated into a chapter of his unpublished 1993 UBC doctoral dissertation.

Jay Powell was employed by the Haisla Treaty Commission to carry out a traditional use study for several years (starting around 1998), for use in ongoing treaty negotiations on land and commercial rights. Emmon Bach assisted in linguistic aspects of this work during several visits.

Emmon Bach has collected extensive materials on the language, including two groups of texts from two elders, now deceased: the aforementioned Gordon Robertson (in the nineties) and Jeffrey L. Legaic (in 1970 and 1972). In addition, together with Don Stewart (Haisla elder) he transcribed and translated seven homilies and Bible passaged recorded by (unknown) missionaries and preserved on 78 rpm records. During his visits in the last several years, he began to collect new materials.


Other information

This collection is also archived in the Kitamaat Village. Online presentations of the materials are available at:


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Bach, Emmon. 2014. Documentation and analysis of Haisla and Henaaksiala. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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