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Jay Powell and Vickie Jensen.Portrait by Brian Howell.
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Map of the major sites in the Pacific Northwest.
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Jay Powell and Fred (Woody) Woodruff, his mentor in the Quileute language, La Push, Washington, c.1974.Vickie Jensen, Courtesy of the Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library and Archives, UBC Museum of Anthropology, A003022C.
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Quileute Alphabet.Copyright 1975 Quileute Tribe.
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The first book written, complied, edited and published for the Quileute community by a group of elders with Jay and Vickie.
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The Quileute books won awards, and word spread.Other Aboriginal groups approached Jay and Vickie to ask: "Could you come do for us what you did for the Quileutes?"
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Beau Dick (left) and K'odi Nelson, Alert Bay, BC, 1981. This and other photographs of dancers were taken as source material for illustrations of the potlatch, to be used in the book Yaxwatlen's (We Will Dance).Vickie Jensen, courtesy of the Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library and Archives, UBC Museum of Anthropology, A0030932
For four decades, Jay Powell and Vickie Jensen collaborated with Aboriginal groups in British Columbia and Washington State to preserve their original languages, by observing, recording, writing, publishing—and listening.
The summer day in 1969 when Jay Powell knocked on the door of an older female tribal member on the Quinault Indian Reservation at Taholah, Washington, marked a turning point for him.
Powell was a thirty-year-old PhD student in anthropological linguistics, the recording and analysis of tribal languages, and he had embarked on an intensive hands-on phase of his research. The Aboriginal languages of the Northwest Coast were largely unrecorded, and one of his mentors at the University of Hawaii had encouraged him to study the dying Quinault language. He had the name of a woman who was one of the last three or four fluent speakers in a community of about 450 people. On that summer day he knocked on her door, announced his name and credentials and asked if she would be willing to teach him the language so he could write it down.
The elder simply said, “I’m doing fish now. I’m busy,” and shut the door in his face.
The Quinault Reservation lies on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington, on the far western edge of the continent where the land meets the open Pacific. Taholah is only 152 kilometres west of Seattle, but its windswept ocean beaches, ragged cliffs and dense conifer forests contain a vastly different cultural landscape. The Quinault, who call themselves the Canoe People, are one of several Northwest Coast tribes who claim the salmon and red cedar as their emblems in their home territory of thousands of years. This much Jay Powell knew. What he didn’t know was that this community had recently had a traumatic experience with another anthropologist. For his research on human evolution, the man had talked tribal members into donating blood samples for a study of a small, isolated community. Then he left, literally carrying off their lifeblood in the trunk of his car. In a story achingly familiar to many Aboriginal communities, the Quinault never heard from him again.
Like other Aboriginal people across North America, the elder whom Jay went to visit in 1969 had had enough of outsiders. For decades, these tribes had been labelled as dying cultures and had patiently withstood being studied by anthropologists. Now Aboriginal people, young and old, were taking a stand to establish their rights. Jay was an outsider; the door was closed. For him, the shock of rejection was the start of a consciousness that would open the doors to his future linguistic work. “I realized that I didn’t ever want to be an outsider again,” he says. “I wanted to be invited into the community to do the research and the writing that they wanted.”
Jay reviewed his options: “I had to find another related language group to work with or jump in the Pacific Ocean and start swimming back to Hawaii.” So he headed north and drove 120 kilometres to the Quileute (pronounced Quill-ee-yoot) village of La Push, population 450, and asked residents if anybody still spoke the traditional Quileute language. It was his good fortune to be referred to the long-time tribal chief, Fred (Woody) Woodruff. “Woody was like a good-natured grizzly bear. Early on in our day-long work sessions he told me, ‘Put a sign on the door that says kikitalhil paqit (geniuses at work) so we don’t get interrupted.’” Jay got to work. He bought a battered trailer with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, the beach and the rocky outcrop of James Island, A-Ka-Lat (Top of the Rock) in Quileute, burial place of chiefs and source of spiritual power. The tribe’s creation story tells that a mythical transformer at the Time of Beginnings created the Quileutes from wolves.
Today La Push boasts an oceanfront resort, a seafood plant, a marina, a post office and even a festival, Quileute Days, in mid-July. In the late 1960s, life was radically different. Historically the Quileute were renowned as the best seal hunters on the Olympic coast, second only to the more northerly Makah in traditional whaling. Jay describes a village hemmed in by rain forest, with rustic amenities, including minimal running water during the summer influx of non-Native commercial and sport fishermen. Back then, when the visitors came to town, residents could only flush, wash dishes or take a bath in the middle of the night.
Woody Woodruff introduced Jay to various old-timers, and Jay met a shrinking group of fluent Quileute speakers—about sixty people. Eventually he became fluent too, and today, in his early seventies, he is the last fluent speaker alive. But the process of learning such a complex Northwest Coast language was long and arduous. Quileute contains explosive clicked sounds and glottal stops, with twelve different k sounds and words that can stretch to a dozen syllables. Jay spent months talking with and recording Woody Woodruff, his primary language source. “Get it written down right so it will be right forever,” Woody insisted. Jay struggled to master the tongue-twisting language, repeating each sound and phrase until his teacher was finally satisfied. “You got it now,” Woody would say. “Pour us some more of that coffee.”
From the old-timers, Jay learned community history, including their first contact with the hokwat’, the Quileute word for non-Indians. The word means “people who live in a drifting village,” as the locals perceived the sailors on the St. Nikolai, a Russian sailing ship that wrecked on the rocks near the village in 1809. At the time, Quileute territory comprised 324,000 hectares of old-growth forest, prairies, shorelands and rivers that provided a dependable subsistence to traditional Quileute hunters, fishers and gatherers. Official contact was made in 1855 when the Quileutes met with representatives of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. A year later, in the Quinault River Treaty, the Quileute ceded their lands to the United States government in return for the promise—ultimately unfulfilled—of edu- cation and health care. By 1889, by executive order of US President Grover Cleveland, their 260-hectare (one square mile) reservation at La Push was established. Tragedy struck later that year when a disgruntled white settler, coveting their small parcel of land, burned down all of its twenty-six longhouses while the tribe was away. The 252 villagers returned from seasonal work picking hops in the Puyallup Valley to find the last of their pre-contact carved dance masks, baskets, hunting equipment and ceremonial regalia destroyed. The fire was devastating.
Jay wrote about the Quileute language as well as learning to speak it. To complete his doctorate, he produced a complex academic analysis of Quileute, a language that is unrelated to any other, and one of only five languages in the world with no nasal (m or n) sounds. Although it was an important contribution to linguistic knowledge, Jay doubts that any Quileute ever read it. From now on, he could concentrate on things that the people would read—writing up the stories of Big Bill Penn, the last living Quileute whaler; describing Lillian Pullen gathering iba (bear grass) for her baskets; recording Hal George’s explanation of a person’s t’axilit (guardian spirit); completing the nine-thousand-word Quileute dictionary with Woody Woodruff. (Quileute had some ninety thousand words; the dictionary consisted mainly of root words.) The old people saw their culture slipping away. What they wanted was for Jay to get it written down before it was all gone. They trusted him and believed in his commitment and training. As it happened, the person who would work with him on this challenge for the next forty years turned out to be the girl next door.
Vickie Jensen grew up in New Hampton, Iowa, the same town as “Young Jim Powell.” (The “Jay” came later, after his stint in the army, where everyone went by their initials.) Their parents were merchants and best friends in the small farming town of three thousand residents. After the Second World War, Nels and Lorraine Jensen bought a jewellery store on Main Street. Nels soon tired of indoor work and went back to building houses and later tiling, the process of draining marshy fields to make them more productive, and Lorraine ran Jensen’s Jewelry. Jay’s parents, Jim and Helen Powell, owned Powell’s Hawkeye Variety, a dime store located a block east of Jensen’s. Jay, born in 1938, was eight years older than Vickie, born in 1946. Both were only children. As youngsters, they were too far apart in age to become friends, but both were intelligent, athletic and adventurous.
Jay was sixteen years old when he began his pursuit of becoming an archaeologist, attending summer school at the National University in Mexico to survey and reconstruct Mayan, Mixtecan and Aztec sites. The next year, he was in the Near East excavating at Dothan, a biblical site. After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois (BA, Archeology, 1959), he served in the US Army as a Russian translator and cryptographer. He used the GI bill (free education benefits for veterans) to take up studies at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. With his natural facility for languages, he picked up Spanish, German, Hebrew and French. Vickie, a teenager, listened avidly as Helen Powell read his letters home to Lorraine Jensen over coffee at the Main Diner Café.
One Christmas, home from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa (BA, magna cum laude, English, 1968), and working in the jewellery store, twenty-year-old Vickie was dazzled when a tall, distinctive man walked in. Young Jim Powell carefully unfolded a pouch and asked Mrs. Jensen to check out the engagement gift he had brought back from Israel for his bride-to-be. He placed a series of silver, alexandrite-encrusted crosses on the counter. Vickie, the daughter of a jeweller, had never heard of an engagement gift other than a diamond ring. The idea of giving antique crosses was the stuff of novels.
Four years later, when Jay’s mother told her that Jay was getting a divorce, Vickie advised her not to fret: the important thing, she said, was that Jay be happy. Looking back, she realized it was advice she was also giving herself. Her own first marriage was not going well. As she left Helen Powell’s home that day, Vickie asked for Jay’s address.
Writing her first letter to Jay in La Push was one of the biggest chances Vickie ever took. She wrote countless drafts before she finally finished one and took it to the post office. One letter at a time, they found common ground. Vickie had trained as an educator in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Iowa, influenced by mentors who stressed the importance of creating curriculum materials with content that students were interested in, from dating in pickup trucks to resisting the Vietnam war. During the summers, she taught photography on the University of Iowa campus as part of Upward Bound, a federal project for smart but troubled inner-city youth, exposing them to six weeks of university life and, for many students, their first positive academic experience. Teaching in her own high school classrooms, first in Iowa and later in South Dakota, she translated her students’ interests into assignments and eventually curricula: they wrote about their lives and published a book of poetry, read and discussed popular books, designed and presented multimedia shows on current events. She taught high school English, then added university-level photography and creative writing classes. In South Dakota, she was active in a collective of parents and educators to revise curriculum and start an alternative school. Not incidentally, one of the motivating factors for Vickie was that in her American literature classroom, not one of the textbooks mentioned anything of relevance to her students of Sioux ancestry.
In July 1972, after a year of exchanging increasingly personal letters with Jay, Vickie sent him a telegram and proposed that they spend a week together. He had landed a job at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, starting in September, but for the summer he was finishing up his doctoral research at La Push. She flew to Seattle, where Jay picked her up for the four-hour drive to the village at the end of the continent. She stayed nine days, meeting people and taking photographs—of Woody Woodruff as he worked with Jay, of other residents who dropped by, of daily life in the village. When each day’s work was done, Jay and Vickie talked about a shared future, about how they felt about having children, about collaborating on a book about the Quileutes. She went home, divorced her husband, quit her job, gave away her dog and got ready to leave her country. In December 1972 she joined Jay, who was now teaching anthropological linguistics at UBC. She found work teaching photography classes and working at a gallery in North Vancouver. Whenever they could, they made the eight-hour drive to La Push, where they worked with a committee of elders to design a series of language and culture books for the community.
By 1973, Quileute Language: Book 1, their first book, was ready for printing, along with an illustrated alphabet poster. Jay and Vickie had typed up and laid out a series of lessons for high school students and adults based on everyday words and phrases. Jay arranged for a commercial printing company to do a first run of three hundred copies. A series of three Quileute for Kids books for elementary students soon followed, along with a second high school book and the Quileute dictionary, all carrying the tribe’s copyright. In 1976, the University of Washington Press published Quileute: An Introduction to the Indians at La Push, the illustrated community history Jay and Vickie had compiled. Within four years the Quileutes had their own language and culture curriculum.
The books won awards, and word spread. Calls came in from other Northwest Coast Aboriginal groups: “Could you come do for us what you did for the Quileutes?”
Over the next forty years, Jay and Vickie went on to produce language and curriculum materials for the Musqueam of Vancouver and Kwak’wala-speaking communities including Alert Bay on northeast Vancouver Island. They spent five summers along the Skeena River in northern BC in the eastern and western Gitksan communities of Kispiox, Hazelton, Kitwankool, Kitwanga and Kitseguekla. In central BC they worked with the Secwepemc (Shuswap) of Alkali Lake, Dog Creek, Soda Creek, Canim Lake and Sugarcane. Later on, Jay was invited by five villages on central Vancouver Island to record various dialects of Nuu-chah-nulth, one of the main Aboriginal languages there.
Seven of the eleven Aboriginal language families in Canada can be found in British Columbia. In 1990, the Assembly of First Nations, in a survey of 151 bands in Canada, reported that 66 percent of Aboriginal languages were declining, endangered or critical. Only 15 percent flourished in the communities. The study was a renewed alert to Aboriginal groups. As the last fluent speakers passed on, almost every language in the province was threatened with extinction. When Jay Powell was starting his career in the late 1960s, there were only a handful of Native language courses, particularly among the Sto:lo and Musqueam, being taught in local Indian reserve schools or band council offices, but he knew of no programs going on in the provincial school system.
But all of that was about to change. Jay and Vickie began to write down and tape-record the last of the speakers of various languages. A number of other linguists (including Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy, Brent Galloway, Dell Hymes, Dale Kinkade, Aert Kuipers, Margaret Sequin Anderson, and Larry and Terry Thompson) were seeing the need as well, and had begun research projects with other Northwest Coast groups. Federal and provincial government funding became available for language documentation, revitalization and curriculum development programs. Bands and school districts co-operated in the effort to set up language and culture programs within school classrooms.
Even so, the challenge was daunting. “If I’d had a clear view of the enormity of what I was attempting, I might have given up,” says Jay, reflecting on the past four decades. “I’ve always loved teaching but my work with Aboriginal communities has been my life’s great adventure. Originally, the focus was on tape recording the language, and doing so provided a deeper insight into their traditions and culture. It gave me the rare opportunity to spend time with elders who remembered the days before their world began to change forever.”
One significant advantage of teaching at UBC was that it provided Jay with summers and sabbaticals, affording research time to do fieldwork. As interest grew in teaching Aboriginal languages in school classrooms, Jay and Vickie were invited to work with groups across the province. Doors that did not open easily for outsiders opened for them. They are quick to point out that they were in the right place at the right time, that the need was there and they were qualified to fill it. But more than that, it was who they were as people that brought them the trust of the groups they worked with. They listened well to what communities wanted and responded with respect and hard work.
Vickie was convinced that educational materials should feature students’ own environments, through photographs and illustrations. At the time there were few templates for such materials, so they had to learn by trial and error what worked in the classroom. “A dictionary, though useful, was not the same as a lesson plan so we needed to develop those,” says Vickie. “The lessons needed to be sequenced. Curriculum materials were most effective if they were tied in to the community’s annual cycle, whether hunting and gathering activities in the natural world or ceremonies and other events. Equally important, effective language teachers had to be more than just fluent speakers. They needed to present lessons using engaging tactics, content and endless repetition to students, some of whom had serious attention or discipline issues.” She began collaborating with Joy Wild, an ESL (EAL) teacher, to develop teacher manuals and teacher training workshops for the communities they were working in.
The focus of the curricula kept widening, and gradually Jay moved away from pure linguistics to applied anthropology. “We started to include more cultural content in the materials,” he says, “based on what the old people said was important to them. We realized that it wasn’t enough to just teach how to say, for instance, ‘That’s my auntie’ in their language, because in many Northwest Coast cultures, words for relatives can extend beyond a biological reference. Students also needed to know about their group’s lifeways and beliefs so they could think traditionally. We had to craft lessons that would allow teachers to present language in its cultural setting.” They toiled late at night, on weekends, during teaching breaks and summers, and the school books piled up, all self-published with copyright by the bands that had hired them. Altogether they produced a massive catalogue of more than fifty books.
To work well, language programs needed a collaborative effort among the band/tribal council, teachers and a committee of fluent elders. Jay worked with tribal, school and government administrators to secure grants and other funding. The work of planning the project, researching language, developing textbooks, training teachers and delivering courses in the classroom was a commitment that often stretched to several years for the community as well as for Jay and Vickie. Occasionally the process was interrupted by political disagreements or family rivalries that had to be resolved tactfully before a project could continue. Humour was an important factor in community relations.
Aside from their long-term (and ongoing) association with the Quileutes, Jay and Vickie’s most intensive fieldwork took place during 1980–81, when they moved to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, reachable by ferry from the northeast tip of Vancouver Island, to work with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl). The Kwak’wala-speaking groups, like all Northwest Coast peoples, had survived dark times in their history, notably the devastating loss of population beginning in the mid-1800s, primarily because of smallpox. At that time, when little factual information about the culture of many Aboriginal groups had reached non-Native people, the Kwak’wala-speaking villages became renowned among anthropologists worldwide because of the work of Franz Boas at Fort Rupert on northern Vancouver Island. Boas, considered the father of North American anthropology, spent decades collecting texts from knowledgeable speakers. He also published widely about the potlatch, their culture’s most integral ceremony, which marked, through dramatic masked dances and inherited songs, important social changes such as the passing on of a chiefly name. These events were illegal, having been outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884, two years before Boas arrived at Fort Rupert.
On December 25, 1921, after years of planning, Chief Dan Cranmer of Alert Bay gave an extravagant potlatch to honour his marriage. After the festivities, Canadian officials arrested some forty-five people; twenty-two men and women ended up being sent to prison for terms of up to three months. Hundreds of ceremonial masterpieces, including carved masks, copper shields symbolic of a chief’s wealth, regalia (dance wear), dance rattles, whistles and other cultural properties were confiscated from their owners and distributed to private collections and museums worldwide. The traditional culture with its rich language, art and ceremony seemed doomed.
In 1951, the Indian Act was revised and the potlatch law was simply dropped from the books rather than being repealed. Chief Jimmy Sewid at Alert Bay and others began a movement to recover the several hundred objects confiscated at the 1921 potlatch. The years-long campaign of lobbying and fundraising culminated in the construction of two Aboriginal cultural centres—one in Alert Bay and one on nearby Quadra Island—to house the repatriated artifacts. On October 31, 1980, the U’mista Cultural Centre opened in Alert Bay, proudly displaying its potlatch collection returned from the National Museum of Man (now the Museum of Civilization) in Ottawa, more than half of the confiscated potlatch masks and assorted dance regalia. About seventy-five other objects have been repatriated in subsequent years, from the Royal Ontario Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian) and a private collection of thirty-three pieces that the Alert Bay Indian agent had sold to George Heye of New York in 1922. The whereabouts of an unknown number of other objects are still being tracked down.
Jay and Vickie had first visited Alert Bay in the early 1970s, invited to attend family potlatches by Gloria Cranmer Webster, Dan Cranmer’s eldest daughter and a staff member at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Gloria subsequently left UBC to return home to Alert Bay, where she was hired as the first curator of the new museum. In the late 1970s, she asked Jay to create a preliminary set of language lessons for an adult Kwak’wala class. As the building of the U’mista Cultural Centre progressed, the president of UBC approached Gloria, asking what the university could do to help, and she had a ready answer: release Jay Powell from teaching responsibilities for a year so he could go to Alert Bay and develop language and culture lessons. Gloria, a fluent Kwak’wala speaker, envisioned a full language program as part of U’mista’s mandate.
In 1980, Vickie and Jay packed their bags and moved with their shy two-year-old son, Nels, to Alert Bay. The move from Vancouver to the small, remote island community was a hard one for Vickie. Jay had insisted that she be part of the hiring package, and she was uncomfortable about having the job imposed on her and on the residents of Alert Bay, rather than being considered an integral partner in the project. As the ferry approached the island, her stomach was in knots of apprehension. She was determined to gain her own acceptance.
On arrival, they moved into a rental house on the reserve, a stone’s throw from one of the most noted ceremonial Big Houses on the coast. Their home office consisted of a dining room table, tape recorder and coffee pot in constant use, side-by-side typewriters in a converted bedroom, and a darkroom set up in the basement. Over the months that followed, Vickie’s fears were replaced with a sense of true accomplishment. “For the first time, I became an equal partner in the process of Jay’s work,” she remembers. “When we left after a year, we had made more friends in Alert Bay than we had in Jay’s ten years at UBC.”
That year in Alert Bay began with the opening of the U’mista Cultural Centre. Members of the various Kwak’wala-speaking communities gathered for a weekend of traditional ceremonies, drumming and dances, and welcomed distinguished guests from around the world. The visitors soon filled the two hotels in town, so Jay and Vickie invited thirty-five guests into their house, all sharing a single bathroom. One morning, the couple spent four hours cooking blueberry pancakes for everyone. “In a community that regularly hosted potlatches that involved feeding a thousand guests,” Vickie says, grinning, “it was no big deal.”
Once everyone had gone home, Jay got back to work. He spent most mornings recording two primary language informants, Agnes “Gwanti’lakw” Cranmer and Margaret “Ada” Cook. Afternoons and evenings he analyzed the language data that filled his field notebooks and organized it into lessons. Jay also recorded legends and narratives that would be referenced in a language book about the potlatch. Nola Johnston, a graphic artist who lived in Vancouver, joined the team as illustrator, travelling to Alert Bay to get to know the community and to develop an alphabet poster that featured an illustrated word representing each of the forty-three Kwak’wala sounds—A is for abals (apples), B is for busi (cat), and so on. Nola continued to work with Vickie and Jay, providing illustrations for all their language and culture books, for the next three decades.
Vickie took photographs throughout the Kwakwaka’wakw villages and in the classrooms she visited in both band and public schools. She talked with teachers, getting a feel for school activities, games and vocabulary that would be effective in language lessons. Together Jay and Vickie worked with a committee of local teachers to determine the focus and scope of the books and to develop an appropriate Aboriginal curriculum. They were often invited to participate in cultural activities such as salmon canning, berry picking and fishing, experiences that were incorporated into language lessons. They attended potlatches and Vickie was asked to photograph these ceremonies. Today it is common to see people taking digital photographs in the semi-darkness of potlatches, but in the 1970s and early ’80s, cameras were seldom permitted. “Flash photography was distracting,” Vickie says, “so I had to learn to shoot black-and-white film at very slow shutter speeds and to anticipate what the dancers would be doing.”
A year later Vickie and Jay and their Kwak’wala-speaking consultants and collaborators had completed the Learning Kwak’wala series of twelve language and culture books and a teacher’s manual. Vickie had also taught a photography class and given birth to a second son, Luke. The schoolbooks were produced for two distinct age levels. Me and My Family, My Body—My Clothes, My Village—Myself and Dogs, Cats and Crows were for elementary students and included games and paper cut-outs of a boy and girl in both traditional and modern dress. More advanced language texts were created for older children and adults. All the schoolbooks included illustrations by Nola Johnston, as well as historic and contemporary photographs of the various communities. The U’mista Cultural Centre held the copyright on all of them.
In September 1981, having met their deadlines and finished the projects, Jay and Vickie left for a sabbatical in Quito, Ecuador, with their two young sons. Eight months later they returned to Alert Bay to visit friends, and Jay gave a course in writing Kwak’wala to local language teachers and other interested adults. The Aboriginal classroom teachers were eager to create more lesson materials. After conferring with U’mista and North Island College, Vickie and Jay devised the innovative and highly successful three-year Kwak’wala Teacher Training Project (KTTP), in which language and culture teachers took a series of courses for academic credit at the college. Just before heading back to university life at UBC, Jay and Vickie made a snap decision to buy a house in the village, and Alert Bay became their second home.
Over the next three years, Vickie and Joy Wild flew to Alert Bay from September to April for a series of weekend-long teacher-training classes that included both fluent elders (as language resources) and those teaching Kwak’wala in classrooms as far south as Campbell River and Quadra Island. The participants produced lesson plans, and developed and shared puppet shows, games and activities to go along with them. When Jay finished his university term in May, he and Vickie and their sons moved to Alert Bay for a month so he could conduct classes in reading and writing Kwak’wala. In 1985, when KTTP finished up, some students were able to move into the education program at Simon Fraser University and become fully certified teachers. Jay and Vickie sold their Alert Bay house in 1986. In 2001, U’mista contacted them to produce another groundbreaking work: a computer-based language resource, an animated CD-ROM to teach Kwak’wala to kindergarten students, using no spoken or written English.
From the time they got together in the early 1970s, Jay and Vickie’s lives were scheduled and shaped by fieldwork. From early May until September each year, they lived in one or more Aboriginal villages. During Jay’s first fifteen years teaching at UBC, they never spent a summer at home. Come fall, they returned home with language and culture data, along with illustrations and photographs. They then edited and designed everything into book form and arranged for printing and shipping. When they could get away, they carried the boxes of bound books back to the village, where they could be handed out at a feast or community event. Once every five years they packed up for a year-long sabbatical from UBC and explored other cultural groups around the world. Their sons, Nels and Luke, went on the road with them. As youngsters, the boys were home-schooled, and then studied through the BC distance education program. They grew up in an interesting cultural mix, with a succession of Aboriginal grandmothers and playmates. “Our sons opened doors,” Jay says. “Village life in most cultures is based on the extended family, and people saw us as a family rather than visiting academics.”
In the pre-computer era of their early books, “desktop publishing” was a laborious cut-and-paste process. Revisions that take ten minutes today on the computer would take hours to complete with their IBM Selectric typewriters, state-of-the-art machines with whirling golf-ball-like font elements that had to be manually changed for italic type and Northwest Coast phonetic symbols (a font prepared by members of a linguistics relationship project at the University of Hawaii). Other tools of the trade included transfer type, scissors, exacto knives, hand-held hot-wax applicators and light tables.
UBC did not, at that time, accept any of these Aboriginal language books as scholarly contributions. In the publish-or-perish world of academia, only books published by a press with a peer-review editorial process would count toward promotion or tenure. But Jay and Vickie chose to continue to write, edit and lay out the books themselves, in collaboration with their Aboriginal hosts. They felt it was important that the bands have copyright and that the books be available right away, rather than having to wait two or three years for peer review and conventional publishing. Ultimately, Jay was granted tenure and promoted on the basis of his dissertation, published dictionaries and articles, conference papers and positive teaching reviews.
Once their sons were older and involved with school friends and activities, the pattern of work shifted. In 1987 a mentor appeared in Vickie’s life, pointing her career in a new direction. Alan Haig-Brown, editor-in-chief of Westcoast Publications, a company with a growing number of trade magazines, asked her to edit a new maritime trade journal, Westcoast Mariner. “I don’t know a tugboat from a football,” she told Haig-Brown. His reply—“Don’t worry, you’ll learn”—proved true. Vickie spent the next four years of monthly magazine deadlines venturing out on a variety of workboats to interview the crews. She researched, wrote and edited most articles, took most of the photographs, proofed layouts—did everything but sell ads and subscriptions: “It was a terrific immersion education in publishing.” When she finally left the magazine, it was to write non-fiction trade books. The first was Where the People Gather: Carving a Totem Pole (Douglas & McIntyre, 1992), retitled Totem Pole Carving: Bringing a Log to Life in subsequent paperback editions. She also wrote a string of maritime books, including Saltwater Women at Work (Douglas & McIntyre, 1995). The subject—women who made their living on vessels on the unpredictable and often dangerous waters of the Pacific—suited her sense of adventure perfectly. Many of the women profiled in the book, she wrote in the introduction, “had a zest for life, perhaps sharpened by a sense of living on the edge.”
Eventually she set up her own publishing company, Westcoast Words (westcoastwords.com), benefiting from years of writing, laying out and arranging for the printing of Aboriginal books. The company’s first publication was Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects (1997), a unique primer for students, co-authored with Harry Bohm, then project manager of the Underwater Research Lab at Simon Fraser University. They had met years earlier when Vickie interviewed him for a story on underwater robotics; now Harry got back in touch and said, “I want you to write the book I wish I’d had as a kid.” The book has sold more than seventeen thousand copies, and it led to a long-term contract with Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center of Monterey, California, to co-author and edit Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication (2010), a textbook on underwater vehicle design. Co-written with Bohm and Dr. Steven W. Moore, and illustrated by Nola Johnston, the book was a ten-year-project that filled 770 pages and weighed in at just over three kilos. In June 2010 the Powell-Jensen family, grown sons included, travelled together to Hawaii to launch the new book at MATE’s annual underwater robotics competition.
Jay Powell retired from UBC in 2000. As professor emeritus, Department of Anthropology, he threw himself energetically into new activities. He and Vickie lectured on Aboriginal life and arts aboard cruise ships on the Alaskan run, the South Seas, Siberia and even one around-the-world cruise. One summer, Jay talked Vickie into a sixty-four-day bicycle tour across Canada. Later, on his own, he spent six months walking the Pacific Crest Trail from the US-Mexico border to Manning Park, in the Cascade Mountains about 220 kilometres east of Vancouver. After his blisters healed, he declared that he was “a self-described failure at retirement” and returned to work as a consultant. Now in his early seventies, he has shifted the focus of his work to ethnographic research and community histories; hearing loss has made it difficult to distinguish the precise sound differences of various Northwest Coast languages. Jay continues to work on contract for several communities, most recently the Hoh people of the Olympic rain forest in Washington State, and the Haisla people of Kitamaat village on the North Coast of BC. In this capacity he has produced publications and reports that provide background information for government issues and/or treaty negotiations.
It takes years of observing and recording, taking notes, conducting interviews and asking questions to document a culture and its language. “Preparing a revealing cultural description or Native language grammar is like catching a species of bird as it flies off to extinction,” says Jay. But that’s only half the challenge that he and Vickie have to meet. The other half is returning the information to the people in a format they can use and build on, particularly as traditional societies continue to lose their elders and embrace mainstream North American life at the speed of cable television, wireless internet and Facebook. As Jay observes, “Forty years ago we were fortunate to have the training, expertise and opportunity to work with a generation of elders, many of whom still remembered the old ways and wanted to record that information for generations to come. We also benefited from the recorded observations of a handful of very early linguists and ethnographers. Today, many Aboriginal groups are graduating their own anthropologists. That’s a tremendous development. Hopefully some of them will find the work we did to be helpful.”
Over the decades, Jay and Vickie’s goals have changed. Initially they hoped that languages could be revitalized, that by joining forces with teachers and fluent elders, they could develop enough educational momentum to return Aboriginal languages to everyday use. But eventually they had to face the fact that too many elders had died, and too few of the younger generation had learned their language from those elders. However, Jay also realized that to know even fifty words could generate a strong sense of culture and pride. He put that new goal into practice during 2008-2009 in a series of six-week community language lessons in La Push. Several times a week he met with various small groups—office workers, health care staff, students, groups of teachers—and emceed community meetings in the school gym that drew people of all ages. They sang Quileute songs, exchanged greetings, learned telephone conversations and practised sweet talk and compliments, laughing as they did so. “It’s a community’s determination to revitalize their language and traditional cultural knowledge that counts,” Jay says. “School programs and language materials can make a difference if they teach simple everyday expressions such as greetings, commands and questions, and if people get in the habit of using them.”
Jay and Vickie have seen other cultural knowledge being nurtured in several communities. Jay says, “It can be as simple as parents and grandparents who share their experience of cedar bark weaving, fishing, beading and storytelling, or band council leaders who mandate answering the phone in their language and who support bilingual signs in a community.” Vickie remembers that when they arrived in Alert Bay for the first time in the early 1970s, “the kids were dancing with cardboard masks and papier-mâché rattles. Now their dance program features elaborately carved cedar masks that are real works of art. In the ’70s it was only old men who sat at the drumming log and sang the Kwak’wala songs at potlatches. Today a whole new group of young guys in their twenties and thirties have learned those traditional songs and even burned several CDs.”
“Looking back more than forty years, so much has changed and so many have died,” Jay says—among them his first mentor, Woody Woodruff. “What was ordinary village life back then now seems extraordinary.” Today very few grave houses or burial figures remain in Aboriginal villages, not many children have pulled cedar bark for making baskets, fewer oolichans and smelts can be harvested, and hardly anyone remembers the purification rituals for puberty, pregnancy or hunting. For some groups, Vickie’s photos, Jay’s language recordings and their notes on cultural institutions are a rich documentation of the lifeways and traditional knowledge of the last speakers. La Push has changed dramatically in another way since 2005, when the Twilight series of novels by Stephenie Meyer became popular. In Meyer’s hands, the Quileute legend in which their ancestors were made from wolves became a contemporary story in which one fictional character—Jacob Black, a Quileute from La Push—is a werewolf, and much of the action unfolds in Forks, a nearby Quileute community. Meyer’s bestselling books and the movies based on them have caused La Push, still a small village of 371 residents, to be thronged by “Twihards,” as fans are known, snapping photos and buying Twilight-inspired memorabilia.
In 2009, Jay and Vickie donated their life work—Jay’s field notes and recordings, and 33,000 of Vickie’s photographs—to the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Their hope is that the massive Jensen/Powell Fonds, as the collection is called, will serve as a time capsule of life and cultures during a period of change; that Aboriginal scholars and community members will use the data and images not only as windows on the past but also as guides for the future.
The foundation of their work together has always been family, whether the extended families of a village, or their own. Their home in the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver is filled with Aboriginal art and artifacts, many of which were presented to them as gifts. They now gladly trade the cold, wet Northwest Coast winters for the predictable sun of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, enjoying yet another language and culture. Iowa is still in their lives, in annual summer visits to elderly aunts and uncles.
“We are prairie folk,” says Jay, “ordinary people who had an amazing opportunity and took it. We always loved the work, but the single most important fact was that we did it together. That’s how people thought of us, as a team.”