A salmon on the doorknob: Vicki Jensen & Jay Powell
September 22nd, 2012
A SALMON ON THE DOORKNOB: HOW ONE COUPLE HAS HAPPILY WORKED “FORTY YEARS IN THE MARGINS” ON BEHALF OF FIRST NATIONS’ LANGUAGES
Crows and seagulls are squabbling in the road. From her computer Vickie Jensen can just see the surf crashing on the shore, but the fog has totally obscured James Island at the mouth of the Quileute River.
She and her husband Jay Powell are once again in LaPush, a small native village on the northwest coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, helping the Quileute [pronounced Kwil-LAYyute] revive their language and culture.
While Powell is off at the tribal school, cajoling a class of teenagers into trying words like kitaxt’ik’als (Go home) or Hista tasi (Gimme five!), Jensen recalls her first visit 36 years ago. In those days, 50 Quileute could speak their indigenous language; 600 could not. Very quickly the number of Quileute speakers on the reservation dwindled to a handful. “Jay and I didn’t know it at the time,” she says, “but that was the beginning of our life together.”
After Fred “Woody” Woodruff, one of the last remaining Quileute speakers, had the patience to teach his language to Powell, the young anthropologist began his lifelong career as one of the most essential linguists in the Pacific Northwest. Since then Vickie Jensen has shot more than 50,000 photographs and the couple has helped produce more than 40 language and culture books for the Quileutes, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Halkomelem, the Eastern and Western Gitksan, the Shushwap, and the Nuuchah- nulth.
“A language is like a species of bird,” Powell has said, “that has evolved across thousands of generations. How hard would we work to save such a bird from becoming extinct?”
Jay Powell first came to LaPush in 1968 to research his Ph.D dissertation as a University of Hawaii graduate student. When Jensen joined him in 1972, she was already teaching students who didn’t fit into mainstream schools. “We debated whether the languages of the coast were doomed and how to rekindle pride and cultural interest,” she says.
“We eventually decided to produce a couple of schoolbooks that the elders could use in teaching at the school. “We felt it was particularly important that these materials look respectable, like ‘real’ schoolbooks rather than a handful of dog-eared mimeos. I insisted that they be illustrated with photographs of local kids and of village life on the rez.”
Flash photography was not permitted in potlatches or feast ceremonies, so Jensen learned to work with very slow shutter speeds. “I also developed the negs and printed the images myself,” she says, “Because we were always on a meager budget, we were limited to b&w images and illustrations as part of our photoready copy.”
Long before computers were an option, theirs was a thriving desktop operation. They tape-recorded the elders and used a typewriter with a special IBM Selectric ball in order to produce the necessary diacritic markings. They used Letraset to transfer titles, hired an illustrator, developed and printed photographs, planned the layout, stuck everything in place with tape or wax, and then found a printer who could print and bind within allowable budgets.
Powell and Jensen invariably lived on the rez, often with a family, and returned year after year. Publications were usually celebrated with a community feast. “This body of work sort of sneaked up on us,” Jensen says. “We’ve been so busy writing and publishing ‘in the margins’ that we’ve never been a significant part of the mainstream publishing picture.
“But we have no regrets. Recently someone left a salmon hanging on our doorknob. It’s the kind of anonymous thank you that really means something here.”
The books they produced are copyrighted for the native band. This approach proved problematic for Powell’s teaching career at UBC.
“The anthropology department might have thought our work was interesting and even important,” says Jensen, “but the books certainly didn’t count for promotion or tenure since they hadn’t been produced by a juried press. Academics were uncomfortable with language and culture books that seemed too much like pragmatic self-publishing, which in those days was categorized with vanity press works that nobody but the author would publish.
“But the process of “real” publishing took two to three years to accept a manuscript, have it reviewed, seek subventions, edit and re-edit, proofread and print.
“So, instead we did it ourselves, sometimes producing a book in six weeks. The native communities wanted their language lessons, dictionaries, cultural readers and kids’ picture books now!”
While Powell continued to teach at university and write “respectable” academic papers, Jensen accepted an invitation from Alan Haig-Brown to try editing Westcoast Mariner Magazine. It turned into a four-year stint. She has also written books on native art and maritime life, eventually setting up her own company, Westcoast Words, for her narrow-niche books on underwater robots and a guide to local totem poles.
After they produced their first Quileute school books in 1975, the phone in Vancouver started ringing. “In 1980-81, when we lived in Alert Bay, we wrote 13 books, helped with opening U’mista Cultural Centre, taught a photography class, and had a second baby.”
Their commitment to the work didn’t change, but technology did, as did their methodology. “In the beginning, we thought good-looking, respectable school books would be enough. Then we realized that while the elders might be fluent in the language, none had any experience in classroom dynamics. So we added teacher’s manuals to our repertoire.
“When that didn’t prove as effective as we’d hoped, we set up a three-year Kwak’wala Teacher Training Project, where teachers would not only learn about NASL (Native as a Second Language) techniques but could share ideas, produce group materials, and get post-secondary credit, first through North Island Community College and later SFU.
“Eventually we did our first immersion CD-ROM for young kids. Back in 1980 there were only old men ‘at the log,’ singing the ancient Kwak’wala songs at potlatches. Today, there’s a whole generation of powerful young singers (and dancers) making their own CDs.”
Forty years. Forty books. 50,000 photos. Plus thousands of hours on reservations and in classrooms.
It adds up to two of the most valuable authors of British Columbia.
Jay Powell’s forty years of anthropological work in the Pacific Northwest and Vickie Jensen’s 50,000 First Nations photos was donated to UBC Museum of Anthropology in 2009.
Essay Date: 2008