‘I’m 84 and I rap’: Elder helps introduce new generation to Haida language as one half of rap duo

A Haida Gwaii duo promotes the beauty of a dying Indigenous language in a unique way – by singing rap songs.

Jiixa (Gladys Vandal), a Haida Eagle Clan elder, teamed up with Julia Weder last December to form the rap group Siijuu Jaadas, which means “cool ladies” in the Haida language.

Jiixa says she likes to perform rap songs.

“I still think I’m a girl. I’m 84 and I rap,” she told CBC’s Matt Allen.

Jiixa, a Haida language teacher in Skidegate, British Columbia, is one of nine core members of the Skidegate Haida Immersion ProgramWHO received an honorary doctorate of laws from Vancouver Island University in June 2019 for their efforts to preserve the language.

According to the Council of the Haida Nation, the language has only about 20 fluent speakers left.

Weder, 25, is of Greek and Croatian ancestry and grew up in Haida Gwaii. She says she learned the Haida language by volunteering in the immersion program — where she and Jiixa cooked meals together — and taking classes as an employee of the Skidegate Health Center.

After becoming close friends, Jiixa adopted Weder into the clan in July 2021.

In the Haida culture, if a member wants to adopt a non-Indigenous person, they will normally consult with the chief of the clan and their own parents. Adoptions are often celebrated with potlatches and adoptees are expected to be proactive contributors to Haida nation building.

Jiixa says she asked Weder’s parents if she could adopt the young woman.

“She fits in well [in the Haida culture]”, Jiixa said. “I was like, ‘I could use her as a girl.'”

Weder, who took the name Skaak’aadang Jaad after joining the Haida Eagle Clan, says she considers Jiixa her surrogate grandmother.

Jiixa pictured with Weder and her parents. Weder says she considers Jiixa her surrogate grandmother. (Submitted by Julia Weder)

Write Haida rap songs

Weder says they got the idea to write and sing rap songs while watching music videos.

“She turned to me [and said] we should write a rap song… And then we did,” she said.

The duo has produced three songs to date, including two raps: Hala ga taameaning “come and eat” and Vancouver id gwii X̲anjuudal“trip to Vancouver.”

Both are published on YouTube with subtitles in Xaayda Kil, the Skidegate dialect of the Haida language, and their English translation.

Weder says they use words taught in Skidegate’s Haida Immersion Program for their lyrics, based on ideas they find in their daily lives.

“Lyrics mostly come when we’re driving the car or eating a meal,” she said.

“Sometimes I take the recorder out of my phone and say, ‘Let’s talk about the next video we’re going to do.'”

Weder says teaching and learning the Haida language is key to healing the intergenerational trauma that First Nations people suffered under colonization.

“Language can release those links to ancestry that people would otherwise have lost,” said Weder, who also co-founded the Haida Gwaii Media Collective to help promote Haida culture through digital media.

“It’s amazing the importance of bringing the language back into people’s lives and families.”

Jiixa agrees.

“We want our children to grow up and learn their culture and their language and know where they come from,” she said.

“There are so many reasons why language and culture are so important.”

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