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Language of the Land

With fluent speakers declining, First Nations across B.C. and Canada fight to save their traditional tongues


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It's a perfect spring morning at Xit'olacw Community School in Mount Currie, and a handful of young students sit in a semi-circle around two teachers.

A familiar melody spills out from the smiling faces, all singing in staggered unity and off-key in the charming way that children do.

The song is "The Farmer in the Dell," but the words are unrecognizable to the untrained ear.

The kids are singing in the Ucwalmícwts dialect of the St'at'imcets language — the traditional language of the Lil'wat Nation.

"I started singing with the kids in '02," says Dixie Joe — whose traditional name is Qvteqs — once the song has ended and the kids have run outside to soak up the sun, still full of energy from their traditional sing-along session.

Qvteqs — a Lil'wat elder and one of just a few dozen fluent Ucwalmícwts speakers left — helps teach the language with his sister, Bernita Saul — or Tsemana7 — as part of the school's Ucwalmícwts Immersion program.

This year there are 17 students enrolled in the immersion program, ranging in age from four to seven. Once the students hit Grade 3, they'll move back to English-based classes.

"I am fluent, but he is way more fluent than I am," Tsemana7 says, motioning to her brother. "He can do more advanced words that I can't do yet on my own."

A child bolts in from the recess fun outside — "I need a drink of water," he says in English.

Tsemana7 corrects him, leading to a short back and forth in the traditional tongue.

"We're always building, because they do use a lot of one-word phrases, and so we're trying to stretch it," Tsemana7 says once the student has his water and runs back outside.

"They know it's in there, and we need to keep pulling it and pulling it — practice, practice all the time. That's one of my main goals, is making sure that they're listening and they're doing routine, and always practicing."

Both Tsemana7 and Qvteqs know that making the language fun is key to having it stick with the Lil'wat youth.

"I found out first-hand that little kids like to sing, so as a tool, I use singing in our language, so the kids can say whatever words I come up with," Qvteqs says.

It doesn't take more than a few musical bars of observation to see what he means — the kids love it.

"I believe the language is in here," Qvteqs says, pointing with one hand to his heart.

"In all First Nations people — not just around here, everywhere — the language is in here.

"You just have to help them bring it out."


In 2014, the First Peoples' Cultural Council (FPCC) released its updated report on the status of B.C.'s First Nations languages.

There are 34 unique languages in B.C. (with 59 dialects), and the province is home to 60 per cent of all First Nations languages in Canada.

Over the past century, since the time of colonization and the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate the First Nations people, B.C.'s languages have gone from 100-per-cent fluent First Nations speakers to below five per cent. Semi-speakers make up only 8.2 per cent.

But in recent decades, hundreds of volunteers have poured countless hours into reviving, rebuilding and retaining the languages.

It's not always the easiest fight — the number of fluent speakers continues to decline as elders pass away — but a healthy stubbornness remains.

"It's challenging but it's hopeful, is what I would say," says Aliana Parker, language revitalization program specialist with the FPCC.

In her current role, Parker coordinates grants, holds workshops and develops resources and research for communities to use on their own language-retention programs.

"We're looking now at about four per cent of First Nations people in B.C. are fluent in their language, and of that four per cent, the majority of them are over 65 years old," Parker says.

"But what we also saw in the 2014 report was an increase in the number of semi-fluent speakers or semi speakers of the languages."

That increase is encouraging, to be sure, but it's no cause for celebration just yet.

Research has shown that it takes about 1,000 hours of intensive language study to go from basic beginner to functional use — and that's still not considered fully fluent.

"If you're thinking of conversing with the elders about very traditional knowledge — specific scientific knowledge about certain plant names or practices or spiritual practices or things like that — there is a lot of additional vocabulary and other knowledge that is required for that to really have that full fluency," Parker says.

"But about 1,000 hours will take you from a beginner to being able to live your life in the language on a day-to-day basis."

Technology has also played a bigger role in keeping the languages alive in recent years, the most recent advancement being the FPCC's First Voices Keyboards app.

The app allows users to text, tweet or chat using keyboards tailored to their traditional languages.

Just about every First Nations community is taking some steps to support their language — teaching, documenting, and passing it on to a new generation.

"Particularly for the First Nations languages here in the province, language is identity — it's connection to land," Parker says.

"It ties you to your history, to your ancestors, to all of those who have gone before you. It's a really deep connection to this particular land, this geographical area, and as I said, as a result, it's identity.

"It carries so much of the culture, and knowledge and ways of seeing and understanding the world, so it's hugely important for that reason."


Efforts to revive the Ucwalmícwts began in the '60s, eventually leading to the creation of the Xit'olacw Community School.

Dr. Lorna Williams — Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Department of Linguistics at the University of Victoria — was instrumental in those early days.

"We were really fortunate in our family because we had lots of elders around us as we were growing up, and most of them didn't speak English," Williams says. "And so we were able to retain our language"

As a residential school survivor, Williams knows first-hand the connection between language and identity, and what it means to be forcefully stripped of both.

Today, she's nationally recognized for her work with not just the Lil'wat, but all First Nations languages.

"We have to always also help people to see the importance of supporting all languages," she says.

"Because with each one, the language comes and emerges from the land, and we have to respect that."

Today, there is a small but dedicated group of instructors focused on Xit'olacw's immersion program.

Elder Gloria Wallace has been helping teach the language for about four decades.

"I didn't go to residential school. I went to the day school, but it was pretty much the same. When we were caught talking our language, we would get the strap," Wallace says.

"I guess I learned my language because my grandmother stayed with us, and lived with us. She lived to be 116 years old, and she didn't know English at all, so we had to learn it."

In those days, pretty much all Lil'wat elders spoke the language, Wallace says, but it wasn't written until the '70s, when a Dutch linguist by the name of Jan van Eijk came to the community to catalogue the language in writing.

Wallace took classes to learn the written language, and has been teaching it ever since.

But soon it will be time for her to move on — she says she's been shadowing her granddaughter to take over for her, and the two went to a language workshop together recently.

"When you come to my age, you've got to pass your knowledge down. That's really important, and I don't just teach our language, I teach our tradition," Wallace says.

"When you tell the tradition in English, it's not really meaningful, you know? The stories, they're not as meaningful when you say it in English, as when you tell it in our language."

And once a new generation learns the language, the responsibility falls to them to keep it alive.

"I told them as long as someone can read and write, then that person is going to have to really work hard in reinforcing our language," Wallace says.

"And I keep telling that to my students. 'I really want you to learn,' I said, 'and one day, one of you will be sitting on my chair up there and you're teaching it,' I told them.

"And they said, 'where are you going?'" she adds with a laugh.

"They think I'm not leaving, hey?"

As time rolls on, it's inevitable that more and more fluent speakers will pass — and with each passing, the link to future speakers gets weaker.

"I'm getting a little rusty because nobody else speaks it," says Burt Williams with a chuckle.

Burt and his sister Terri (siblings of Lorna) are both involved with teaching the language at Xit'olacw.

"It's pretty tough to teach, because nobody else speaks it," Burt says. "They don't speak it in the community anymore."

The traditional tongue is still spoken at community gatherings, and an interest is starting to build, Terri says.

"People — not only high school students but older adults — are becoming more interested, wanting to learn it and wanting to actually speak it," she says.

There are a few language resources offered for adults, through the Ts'zil Learning Centre or post-secondary schools like Simon Fraser University, but they aren't always easily accessible, and there has to be a stubborn dedication on the part of the learner.

"And then you're still learning it just in a classroom. I think you have to learn it in life," Burt says. "Talking with elders would be the way to go."

Having areas of the community that are solely dedicated to speaking the language might help, but Burt believes the best way to truly learn it is through traditional practices with elders.

"Like when you're cutting fish, or basket weaving, or doing something traditional, you could then be speaking the language, and I think that would be the best way to become fluent, because the language is alive there," he says.

"It's not as much alive in the classroom, and then you're translating it from English to the language, so it loses a lot of the meaning."


In 1972, Danish linguist Jan van Eijk arrived in the Lil'wat Nation to help catalogue the language. A local band member set him up with his own cabin on-reserve.

"It was a log cabin with no running water and no electricity, so I relied on coal oil lamps and for water the local creek would do," van Eijk recalls.

"It was a wonderful adventure for a total tenderfoot greenhorn from Holland — Holland is so organized even the grass grows at the same rate."

His Lil'wat friend also arranged for van Eijk to meet with local elder Sam Mitchell, "who is still a legend, and certainly in northern Lil'wat territory," van Eijk says.

"He was wonderful — a 78-year-old man who spoke his language fluently."

Mitchell and van Eijk would sit for about two hours a day, working their way through the language word by word. They began with simple words like numbers, then basic nouns and verbs, and then into inflected forms.

"You find slowly how completely different the language is," van Eijk says.

"The main thing is of course the sound system of Lil'wat, and really all the Salish languages, is completely different from English...but the man had excellent pronunciation, and he was very patient."

Van Eijk's studies soon expanded to other elders — women know many traditional words that men don't, he explains — and after countless hours of study and fieldwork he produced a Lil'wat-English dictionary and many other supporting documents that are still well used in the community today.

"These things are very useful in preserving the language," he says. "It is not as good as having access to fluent speakers, of course, but as a helping tool, an assistant tool, it's extremely important."

The written documents have breathed new life into a dying language, and given hope to people like Williams, who have poured so much time and effort into keeping them alive.

"The documentation is rich enough that there are young people who continue to speak the language," she says.

"I think that when people's cultural knowledge, and their relationship with each other and with the land and the nation is strong, then there's hope for the language. When there are many places where the language is spoken and heard, that's what keeps it healthy."


Chief Atahm School — located on the Adams Lake Band near Chase — is often heralded as a successful model for First Nations language instruction.

The school has had an immersion program for the traditional Secwepemc language since 1991.

Dr. Kathryn Michel, one of the school's founders, attributes its success to "the right mix of stubborn people."

"We're the longest sort of existing in this area, and I think that's what a lot of people have trouble doing, is sustaining the program because there's a lot of politics surrounding it," Michel says. "I think what we've been able to do is really keep a really tight core and a vision going, so I think that's probably what our strength lies in — more of our ability to buffer a lot of the challenges that a lot of communities aren't able to."

Through countless hours of work, the school has helped sustain the language, but there is more work to be done yet.

"When we were first beginning it was something new, and we really had to intensively sort of group together and there was a lot of parent involvement," Michel says.

But as with any institution, complacency eventually set in.

"I think we need to intensify our efforts again, because people sort of believe now that we have this school that our language is OK," Michel says.

"But unless people are actively using it in the homes, any language is not going to be OK."

Having students enrolled in immersion programs is a great place to start, but it doesn't do enough to increase the dying numbers of fluent speakers.

"Unless we all take responsibility within our families and family life to use the language, then it's sort of doomed to always just have a little niche area in our lives and not really be a true active language anymore," Michel says.

With limited funds — and dozens of languages in B.C. alone competing for them — the future of First Nations languages remains unstable.

"You need so many human resources and physical resources just to maintain a minimal program," Michel says. "So how do you do it? You have a bigger widespread effort, and you have more funds, and availability of a network and infrastructure that can help this happen."

Even in the face of daunting odds, Michel — and the hundreds of others like her who are fighting for the languages — won't be giving up anytime soon.

"That's where the stubbornness comes in. It has to happen. I don't think it's something that anybody should give up on," she says.

"I think when we did start the immersion program, and people started to see that it was working, that that already was sort of the miracle point, because our elders thought the language was never going to survive past them.

"These are some of the elders that have now passed away, and they expressed that they were just so happy that the language was still going to be passed on, so I'm optimistic for sure. I wouldn't be pouring my heart and soul into it if I wasn't."


The areas surrounding Whistler are rich with traditional First Nations culture, steeped in centuries of oral histories passed down from generation to generation through the vibrant local tongues.

"Hopefully people get disabused of the notion, which is still here unfortunately, that these languages are primitive, that they cannot handle complex concepts, like it's 500 words and then a bunch of growls or whatever — believe it or not, some people still think like that," van Eijk says.

"It is an extremely finely calibrated instrument, like all native languages, and with concepts expressed grammatically for which (English) would need an entire sentence with which to really capture it.

"I mean, if they wouldn't be so sophisticated and so complex, it wouldn't have cost me so much time to learn," he adds with a laugh.

Local First Nations languages — here and thriving for centuries — have names for everything. You just need to take the time to listen and learn.

"All through the valleys, and through Whistler and Pemberton and all the way to the ocean, we have names for all of it — every mountain and stream," Williams says.

"And people need to know those, because you really get a sense of the land, and the geography, when you know the words."

For anyone interested in learning more, the Squamish-Lil'wat Cultural Centre at 4584 Blackcomb Way is an excellent place to start.

And with National Aboriginal Day set for June 21, there's no better time than now.


Ready To Pronunciate?

For the untrained eye, ear and tongue, it can be difficult to sound out traditional First Nations languages like the St'at'imcets on sight alone.

"The sound system of Lil'wat, and really all the Salish languages, is completely different from English," says Jan van Eijk.

"So the main thing is people need access to a source that describes what sounds these various letters stand for."

Failing to find someone who speaks the language, one must rely on the written materials, "but you must be prepared for the fact that the language doesn't sound anything like English, or really any language related to English," van Eijk says.

Hard consonants — like the 'K' the 'T' the 'P' the 'M' and the 'N' represent the standard 'kuh' the 'tuh' the 'puh' the 'muh' and the 'nuh' sounds.

But beyond that it gets trickier. According to van Eijk, the 'X' stands for a "tkuh" sound — a very raspy, throaty sound.

If you see an apostrophe over a consonant, it means the sound is pronounced with a noticeable "pop."

The number 7, when used in a word, represents a kind of glottal stop, or a catch in the throat.

It's jarring at first, but practice makes perfect.

"People have to realize that, yeah, it takes some effort," van Eijk says.

"And the main thing is to go over it with a speaker — someone who speaks the language."