Advertisement
Views My Own

Why I’m Spending One Thousand Hours Learning My Indigenous Language

Residential schools robbed us of our language. To bring Squamish back from less than 10 fluent speakers, I’m immersing myself for eight months.

by Char George as told to Sarah Berman
06 February 2017, 8:57pm

Growing up, you can't help but notice the absence of your language.

I come from Tsileil-Waututh and Squamish nations. My elementary school was mostly white, with a few native students. I don't remember learning history on our First Nations people. At the time I was more worried about being different from my classmates.

Then I moved up north in Williams Lake, where there were a lot more First Nations at my school. They have Shuswap, Tsilqot'in and Carrier languages up there, and my high school offered classes for all three. I was learning along with them, but it almost didn't feel right, because I didn't belong to it. I thought a lot about why there were so many elders up there, teaching their kids, because I didn't get that growing up.

I don't know the exact numbers, but I've heard there were less than 10 fluent Squamish speakers at one point, with around 30 less-proficient speakers. Residential schools have everything to do with that. Our languages were taken away from us. It was forbidden to speak them. And the result from that was our people being afraid to know their own culture. It was almost not worth it in some people's eyes to bring the language back.

But other elders were strong enough to keep it going for us. Now that I am learning Squamish for myself, it's raised my appreciation for those elders, who held onto it for us. It's our turn to bring it back, and bring it back stronger. At the same time, I think colonialism is still quite strong—you still see it everywhere. I don't think colonialism will ever stop, but this is our way of slowing it down a bit.

As a teenager, I would come back to my territory for the summer and winter breaks. Then I could reconnect with my own culture. My dad got me into traditional singing and dancing. We'd take kayaks out for the day near Belcarra, and he would teach me about the islands there, which was a really beautiful summer activity.

Language still wasn't a priority back then because I didn't think what we're doing now was even possible. I'd never heard of a program like Kwi Awt Stelmexw, with full immersion, though there more of them popping up. I didn't know too many Squamish speakers back then. It just wasn't something I thought was possible for myself.

It was one of my sisters who inspired me to immerse myself and learn the language. I watched her working to bring back the Henqeminem language for the Tsileil-Waututh. That's where the spark hit, seeing her passion for the work. I thought I wanted to become fluent in the language I belong to.

We're halfway through the program now, and some days it still feels scary. This is the first time something like this is being done, and it's up to us to succeed or fail. We've increased the speaking population of our nation by maybe 0.4 percent. Still, that's the biggest increase in years, all at once.

One of the main struggles for me is to get out of my English brain. We all grew up in education systems where reading and writing are the main resources for learning. Our people didn't read and write. Historically we didn't have a writing system. We talked to each other, handed things down, and were expected to learn that way.

We're all moving up through different levels of proficiency. We're past the Tarzan level, where all you can say is "that's an orca," or "my name is." The goal is to be able to answer a huge question, like "do you support Donald Trump?" and be able to back up that opinion with facts.

I've encountered a surprising amount of skepticism. People will ask us: what is less than 20 people really going to do? They'll ask me: how do you know that's how our ancestors were speaking?

My take on that is, well, maybe this isn't for you, then. But don't worry about it. Languages evolve all the time. English has evolved, so of course Indigenous languages are going to change. We didn't have lots of things in our language: paper, pens, cars, phones. We had elder groups sit down and come up with the words.

Read More: Despite Trudeau's Promises, Liberals Haven't Made a Dent in the First Nations Water Crisis

Personally, I don't think our languages are dying. There's a quote I really like, from a video we watched about the Ojibwe language. It says the language isn't dying, it was just asleep. It's not going to die because we're waking it up now.

We know that now is the time to act, because we still have those elders with us. If we didn't take the opportunity now, who knows what would have happened. Those elders could have gone, and everything they carry could have been gone with them.

The next group of students is going to be able to learn in a different way. They'll benefit from our feedback, and the curriculum will evolve. And as for future generations, I hope that they won't have to struggle or say, "What's that word again?" It will just be a part of their everyday life.

It touches my heart to think about that—and to hear that our ancestors are watching and so proud.

Story has been edited for length and clarity.