Questions Everyone Asks about My Job
Since October 2015, I have been working with Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a non-profit in Vancouver dedicated to strengthening Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) language and culture. The Skwxwú7mesh Peoples are Indigenous peoples whose territory includes modern-day Vancouver. Many people in Vancouver, even those born and raised here, do not know much about the Skwxwú7mesh Peoples and their language, or Indigenous language revitalization more generally. This post is an attempt to answer some of the questions I hear most often these days.
So, are you travelling up to Squamish a lot?
The town of Squamish is located on the Sea to Sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler. Many people assume that this is also where the majority of Skwxwú7mesh Peoples live. In fact, Skwxwú7mesh territory includes present-day Vancouver, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, and Howe Sound all the way up to Whistler. The majority of the almost 4000 Squamish Nation members live in nine communities along the Squamish River and Burrard Inlet, with about 1/3 residing in North Vancouver on three reserves. Kwi Awt Stelmexw recently released a Skwxwú7mesh place names map to help educate the public about Skwxwú7mesh territory and place names. And the answer is no, I don’t travel to Squamish often because most of the people I work with are in Metro Vancouver.
What language do the Squamish speak?
Squamish Peoples speak the Squamish Language, called Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim. It is part of the Salishan language family which consists of 23 related but different languages spoken by related but different Coast Salish peoples. It is related Halkomelem, a dialect of which is spoken by the other two First Nations whose territory includes modern-day Vancouver, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh.
How do you pronounce 7?
The “7” in the word Skwxwú7mesh is actually a glottal stop. That’s when we stop the air in our throat in the middle or end of a word. We do this in English when we say “uh-oh”. The glottal stop is usually represented by the symbol /ʔ/ but this symbol was not available on typewriters when the Skwxwú7mesh language was first documented. Skwxwú7mesh orthography continues to use the 7. Other unique sounds are represented with underlines or apostrophes. A description of some of these sounds can be found on Wikipedia. Here is Khelsilem, the founder of Kwi Awt Stelmexw, explaining how to pronounce the word Skwxwú7mesh:
Why bother saving a “dying” language?
Today there are only seven fluent first-language speakers of Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim, and the language is considered “critically endangered”. This situation is a direct result of the assimilation policies of the Canadian government, as well other factors such as urbanization. People inevitably wonder if it is worth the time, funding, and efforts to try to bring the language back. Wouldn’t it be easier if we all spoke the same language?
But language and culture cannot be separated, and so much more than words are at stake when it comes to language loss. This article explains that, in addition to cultural heritage, languages “contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more… No culture has a monopoly on human genius, and we never know where the next brilliant idea may come from”. As a bilingual person, I recognize that there are ways of expressing, knowing, and being that do not translate across languages. I believe that linguistic diversity is just as important as biodiversity; our world is much more beautiful because of it.
I often ask people who ask me this question to imagine if they were told that they could no longer speak their language, that all of their life would now be conducted in a foreign language and in a society dominated by a foreign culture. Most begin to recognize the frustration and the sense of injustice that they would feel in this situation. In fact, the right to speak and be educated in one’s own language is recognized in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the end of the day, it’s not really about the time or the money, it’s about the right to self-determination.
Can threatened languages be saved?
Ok, I admit that no one has asked me this question using these words. These words are the title of a book by linguist Joshua Fishman who dedicated his life to studying language revitalization. But people ask me this question in many other ways. Fishman has shown that with careful planning and commitment, threatened languages can, in fact, be saved. There are major success stories such as Maori, which was considered dying in the mid-20th century and is now spoken by 125,000 and enjoys official status in New Zealand, and Hebrew, which was not spoken for almost two thousand years and now has millions of speakers. But there are many other cases all over the world of languages large and small coming back with dedicated efforts by the community.
Khelsilem often reminds people that 150 years ago, 100% of Skwxwú7mesh Peoples spoke the Skwxwú7mesh Language. Just imagine what could be done to turn the current situation around in the next 150 years! Careful planning is key and must focus on inter-generational transmission of the language in the home. That is why Kwi Awt Stelmexw is focussed on educating adults, who will then be able to teach their children as first language speakers. This September, Kwi Awt Stelmexw will launch the first ever adult immersion program for the Skwxwú7mesh language in collaboration with Simon Fraser University. There have been several articles in the news about this initiative, but my favourite so far is this interview on CBC Unreserved.
If you are in Vancouver, join Kwi Awt Stelmexw this Thursday for How to Learn an Indigenous Language, a panel event featuring three language activists who will discuss their efforts to learn and teach their languages.