Kwak’wala is an ancient Canadian native language, spoken by only about two hundred natives on Vancouver Island.
Fred Shaughnessy, a kwakwaka’wakw, or kwak’wala speaker, recently passed away at the age of ninety, leaving behind a colorful legacy that is likely never to be repeated.
Fred has kept the Kwak’wala language he has learned since he was born, having never been exposed to the English language. He was one of a very select group of speakers who actually knew the historical pronunciation. In fact, there is no one under the age of 35 who can claim this distinction.
Earlier in Fred’s career he worked for Indian affairs among the people who spoke kwak’wala. People were amazed that he knew the language as he did not have the physical appearance of a native.
Having grown up close to water, Fred quickly developed a love of fishing and, according to his father, caught his first salmon at the age of eight. Fred sold the whopping fifty-two pounds for an astronomical price of ten cents per pound. With his new fortune, he gathered his friends of him, bought and shared with them a box of powdered jelly.
Fred learned his English when he attended St. Michael’s Anglican Residential School, where he was forbidden to speak Kwak’wala. A natural athlete with an innate ability to analyze and apply his new knowledge with determination, he played football and later started playing golf. As in every athletic endeavor he has gone through, Fred eventually became a handicapper four and ended up becoming the president of Powell River and Sunnydale Golf Club.
An excellent pilot, he began to instruct but when the Second World War broke out he enlisted in the aviation. After the war, he returned to Alert Bay and resumed fishing with his father. A few years later, he married Winifred Jeffrey whom he met while he was at St. Michael’s, and eventually resumed his work with Indian Affairs.
Fred died peacefully on August 20, 2009 at the age of ninety, leaving behind his children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The ancient language of Kwak-wala has lost one of its most colorful Kwakwaka’wakw.
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