‘Mind blowing’: Grizzly bear DNA maps onto Indigenous language families

The bears and Indigenous humans of coastal British Columbia have more in common than meets the eye. The two have lived side by side for millennia in this densely forested region on the west coast of Canada. But it’s the DNA that really stands out: A new analysis has found that the grizzlies here form three distinct genetic groups, and these groups align closely with the region’s three Indigenous language families.

It’s a “mind-blowing” finding that shows how cultural and biological diversity in the region are intertwined, says Jesse Popp, an Indigenous environmental scientist at the University of Guelph who was not involved with the work.

The research began purely as a genetics study. Grizzlies had recently begun to colonize islands along the coast of British Columbia, and scientists and Indigenous wildlife managers wanted to know why they were making this unprecedented move. Luckily, in 2011, the region’s five First Nations set up a collaborative “bear working group” to answer exactly that sort of question. Lauren Henson, a conservation scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, partnered with working group members from the Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv Nations to figure out which mainland grizzlies were most genetically similar to the island ones.

Henson used bear hair samples that researchers involved with the working group had collected over the course of 11 years. To get the samples, the team went to remote areas of British Columbia—some of them only accessible via helicopter—and piled up leaves and sticks, covering them with a concoction of dogfish oil or a fish-based slurry. It “smells really, really terrible to us, but is intriguing to bears,” Henson says.

The researchers then surrounded this tempting pile with a square of barbed wire, which harmlessly snagged tufts of fur—and the DNA it contains—when bears came to check out the smell. In all, the group collected samples from 147 bears over about 23,500 square kilometers—an area roughly the size of Vermont.

Henson and her colleagues then used microsatellite DNA markers—regions of the genome that change frequently compared with other sections—to determine how related the bears were to each other. The scientists found three distinct genetic groups of bears living in the study area, they report this month in Ecology and Society.

But they could not find any obvious physical barriers keeping them apart. The boundaries between genetic groupings didn’t correspond to the location of waterways or especially rugged or snow-covered landscapes. It’s possible, Henson says, that the bears remain genetically distinct not because they can’t travel, but because the region is so resource-rich that they haven’t needed to do so to meet their needs.

One thing did correlate with the bears’ distribution, however: Indigenous language families. “We were looking at language maps and noticed the striking visual similarity,” Henson says. When the researchers analyzed the genetic interrelatedness of bears both within and outside the area’s three language families, they found that grizzly bears living within a language family’s boundaries were much more genetically similar to one another than to bears living outside them.

Read more: AAAS

American linguist develops braille alphabet for traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people

Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, B.C., but he has left his touch there.

Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer based in California, in collaboration with Prince Rupert resident and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom, has created a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast.

According to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which works to preserve B.C. Indigenous languages, Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old. 

Eshom, in an effort to revitalize the language, has operated the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019.

It was through Eshom’s website and app that Mowbray learned about the language in early 2021 and offered his services. 

Mowbray has previously created braille alphabets for the Chamorro and Carolinian languages of the Mariana Islands, the Kashubian and Silesian languages of Poland, and others and was looking for his next project.

“I think it’s really important that blind people, or people who are near-sighted or have some visual issues should be able to participate in languages as much as everyone else,” said Mowbray.

“The development of a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax increases the number of people who can experience the knowledge and heritage of B.C.’s North Coast — literally first-hand,” Eshom said in a statement.

“People with visual challenges who are fluent in braille will be able to learn the language as readily as those who have access to printed reference materials. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative, which have enabled an exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”

Read more: CBC/Radio-Canada

Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world

Plenty of films are somewhat incomprehensible, but a forthcoming movie is in a language that only about 20 people in the world can speak fluently.

With subtitles, audiences will be able to understand a feature film titled SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife, which has its UK premiere in April.

It is in two dialects of the highly endangered Haida language, the ancestral tongue of the Haida people of British Columbia. It is unrelated to any other language, and actors had to learn it to understand their lines.

The film is playing an important role in preserving the language, its director Gwaai Edenshaw said. He told the Guardian: “I know that, if our language is this far gone, statistically it’s supposed to be over. But that’s not something that we’re willing to accept.”

The Haida are an Indigenous First Nations community whose traditional territory is Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada.

Edenshaw said most of the fluent Haida speakers were in his Haida Gwaii homeland. “There’s a smattering off the island [who] also speak it.” Edenshaw himself speaks some of the language but is not fluent, having been taught at school in English.

He added that the community generally lives off the sea and makes dugout canoes and houses from local red cedars. Noting that their numbers were ravaged by smallpox and other diseases in the 19th century, he said a former population of tens of thousands has dwindled to a few thousand today.

Read more: The Guardian

How SFU and First Nations Keep Endangered Languages Alive

A group of Haida elders in their nineties gathered around a microphone on Lucy Bell’s dining room table. Every Haida word they spoke into it was another word recorded for future generations.

It was a touching experience for Bell. Her grandmother spoke Haida, a language also known as Xaad Kil and X̱aaydaa Kil when she was young.

“Many in my generation grew up hearing it but not speaking it, and knowing how precious it was to learn it,” said Bell, now 45 and co-ordinator at Haida Gwaii’s Xaad Kihlga Hl Suu.u Society of language. She learned Haida as an adult.

Indigenous languages in Canada are declining as elder native speakers die. Not long after Bell made the Haida recordings, two of the elders who participated passed away.

Read more: The Tyee