Dolly hold two of the children’s books she translated into the Witsuwit’en language. (Deb Meissner photo)

Dolly hold two of the children’s books she translated into the Witsuwit’en language. (Deb Meissner photo)

A full circle moment of a lifetime

Dolly Alfred teaches the Witsuwit’en language in remarkable ways

Language is one of the ways we identify with our culture, and for those who attended residential day schools, such as Delores (Dolly) Alfred, it was the Indigenous languages that were absolutely forbidden. For Alfred, it was the Witsuwit’en language.

Born in Smithers and raised in Witset, Alfred attended Witset day school, where the children (including Alfred) were strapped, and worse, for uttering their own language. In 2022, Alfred would speak her language on the world stage. It was a full-circle moment.

Alfred went on through the schools in Smithers, attending St. Joseph’s Catholic school (another school where her language was forbidden and spankings and strappings with a wooden board were daily occurrences). She went on to attend Chandler Park Middle School and Smithers Secondary. As a mature student, she attended the University of Northern B.C. (UNBC) in the Bachelor of Education program.

In 2016, Alfred was an asset worker in the Lake Kathlyn Elementary School, later moving to Muheim Elementary School as its Indigenous Support Worker.

In 2021, Alfred became the Witsuwit’en Language Support Worker for School District 54, teaching the Witsuwit’en language in the four elementary schools in the district to the Kindergarten to Grade 12 children. Another full circle moment for Alfred.

Alfred has translated two children’s books, The Pink and Sockeye Salmon by Sue Alfred (Dolly’s mother), and The Spider and the Children, by Ron Austin, both books written by elders from stories passed down for generations, published now in English and Witsuwit’en.

Alfred also finds time to sing and drum with her group called Ewk Hiyah Hozdlï, from Witset.

Alfred was born to parents Susie Alfred (Sbep buzï’ tsitnïïn Dinï Ze’Uta’khgit jinlï, in Witsuwit’en), and the late Henry Alfred (Chief Uta’khgit). She has one son and five grandchildren. One of her grandchildren lives close enough she can share their language, traditions and culture with, building a stronger sense of heritage in the younger generations.

What brought Alfred to translating her language on the world stage was a combination of her work, and an idea she got in 2017, from then-Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach. The two were discussing building, learning and teaching the Witsuwit’en language, when Alfred came up with the idea of having a “Witsuwit’en Wednesday” (WW) video on Facebook to teach words and phrases, and their meanings, in the Witsuwit’en language.

She remembers the date she started as September 18, 2017 because she was nervous about how it would be received. She need not have worried. WW was a hit, with viewers tuning in from across the world.

“The purpose of WW is to reach out to the Witsuwit’en people who are living away from the Witset community and away from those who speak the language fluently. Especially the youth,” said Alfred.

She’s also happy many non-Witsuwit’en people are interested in the language too and tune in.

“I get to share a sense of who I am, where I come from and to share our rich and distinctive language and culture.”

Alfred is very cognizant of her responsibility. She furthers her own education in her language, and completed a three-year course in 2018, along with her mother Susie, in the Witsuwit’en language, spoken and written.

All the while, her Facebook project, WW was growing. One of her viewers lived in Ottawa, and reached out to Alfred about doing some transcribing of works into Witsuwit’en, and eventually offered both Alfred and her mother (as a fluent speaking elder), the opportunity to participate in a workshop in Ottawa, translating English to Witsuwit’en, with four other speakers translating in their own languages.

“It was a wonderful opportunity and experience, and we learned so much. We really enjoyed it and were looking forward to more projects of the same,” said Alfred.

They arrived home from Ottawa March 14, 2020, and the very next day the country shut down.

“Then there was nothing, just nothing for two years,” reflected Alfred. “I kept up with my WW, which by this time was called Witsuwit’en Wilhatatdzïn, and would also put words and phrases on Tik Tok and Instagram.

“Then came the call, again from Ottawa, wanting Alfred and her mother to come to Ottawa, (as they had had the prior training) to translate into Witsuwit’en the speeches from the Pope, Prime Minister, and Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada.

This was yet another full-circle moment, this one a moment of a lifetime.

“I was nervous, excited and honoured on one hand, overwhelmed on the other,”Alfred said.

“I knew there was a mix of emotions from others, but it was my way and my mother’s, to get our language out to the world.” A language that was denied both generations in their upbringing in school.

“It was nerve-wracking and exciting, we knew we had to get it right,” Alfred recalls of the experience.

But working with her mother in the translation booth was natural for both of them, and they took turns reading the words of the Pope and the other dignitaries.

Although they did not meet the Pope, it was the words they spoke that were powerful.

“It was our way of saying here is our language, it is still here, still spoken. We are still here, broadcasting our language to the world, translating from the most powerful people.”

It was a remarkable experience Alfred imparts with a big smile.

“To have my mother beside me during this historic event, was incredible,” she noted.

After the speeches wrapped up, there was a meeting of all 24 First Nations translators from across the country that made another huge impact on Alfred.

“We were from all over, representing our cultures and languages, and to be together talking about this historic moment, impacted each of us in a very profound and powerful way.”

It would be hard to follow up on such a big event, and ask “what’s next?” But for Alfred she continues to teach children the language and ways of Witsuwit’en culture.

She continues her teachable moments on her WW Facebook page and Tik Tok, gathering more and more viewers from all corners of the world. She continues to drum and sing, and even joined Alex Cuba onstage during his recent Grammy Award Block Party.

“I will continue to teach, and look forward to new opportunities to share our language, and see where this leads,” Alfred remarked, again with a big smile and twinkling eyes.

For one whose words have touched the whole world, Dolly Alfred is a remarkably modest woman, with a powerful path ahead.

 

Dolly Alfred, to the right of Alex Cuba, drummed at the Grammy Block Party in Smithers. (Submitted photo)

Dolly Alfred, to the right of Alex Cuba, drummed at the Grammy Block Party in Smithers. (Submitted photo)

Dolly and her mother Sue Alfred translate for the Pope in July in Ottawa. (Dolly Alfred selfie)

Dolly and her mother Sue Alfred translate for the Pope in July in Ottawa. (Dolly Alfred selfie)

Dolly Alfred wins the Smithers Chamber of Commerce award for Major Contributor to Arts in 2019. (Submitted photo)

Dolly Alfred wins the Smithers Chamber of Commerce award for Major Contributor to Arts in 2019. (Submitted photo)

Dolly Alfred enjoys drumming and singing in her drum group Ewk Hiyah Hozdli, in Witset. (Submitted photo)

Dolly Alfred enjoys drumming and singing in her drum group Ewk Hiyah Hozdli, in Witset. (Submitted photo)

Be Among The First To Know

Sign up for a free account today, and receive top headlines in your inbox Monday to Saturday.

Sign Up with google Sign Up with facebook

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Reset your password

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

A link has been emailed to you - check your inbox.



Don't have an account? Click here to sign up
Pop-up banner image