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A house for language

Squamish immersion program inspired by dream of elders

It started with a dream in his teen years.

Khelsilem, the Squamish Nation activist, was visited by his elders, speaking to him in their traditional language.

As a child growing up on the Xwmelch’sten (Capilano 5) Reserve and Eslhá7an (Mission) Reserve, he had some exposure to the language — mainly words that had ceremonial or cultural significance — but no sustained study or conversation. Yet in the dream, he understood everything the elders said to him.

“I woke up and I was in tears,” he said. “It was a beautiful thing that I never knew that I would experience.”

The vision set him on a path to first study and then teach the language that only has seven fluent speakers remaining.

Today, at 25, he is the founder of the Language Immersion House, where he and other Squamish language learners don’t just study the language, they live it.

The language

The Squamish language is one of 11 in the Coast Salish language group spoken by First Nations in the area between the Fraser Valley, Central Coast, Vancouver Island and Puget Sound — though they sound little alike.

“They’re so distinct that a fluent speaker from Squamish and a fluent speaker from Musqueum wouldn’t be able to talk to each other,” Khelsilem said.

What they have in common though is their grammatical structure, which goes beyond the subject-verb-object pattern in English.

“The affixes, like prefixes and suffixes, are the bread and butter of our language,” Khelsilem said. “If you can speak those, that’s when you’re really flowing with the language.”

Verbs chosen for a sentence also vary by whether the subject has control over them or not.

The language also has a complex system of determiners (words like some, a few or that in English) that differentiate proximity, visibility, time and gender, but only when referring to a person or animal that is female.

The broad array of determiners was well-suited for a large family group living in a longhouse where one idea or phrase would be communicated for several people at once,  Khelsilem said.

Anyone who has driven Highway 1 since the 2010 Olympics will have noticed the road signs that use the preferred Squamish system of writing, most notably the spelling Skwxwú7mesh.

“Why is there a seven?” is one of the most common questions Khelsilem says he gets.

The system was developed by Randy Bouchard, an anthropologist and linguist, and Louie Miranda, a Squamish elder who helped create the first Squamish language dictionary, including phonetic pronunciations not used in English.

At the time, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, typewriters were limited to the commonly-used Latin alphabet and a few punctuation and style notations.

In proper Squamish pronunciation, there is a glottal stop or brief pause before the last syllable of the word and the phonetic symbol was replaced with a “7.”

The decline

At the population’s peak before European contact, it’s estimated there were between 36,000 and 90,000 Squamish people, based on archeological evidence, oral history and studies into the environment’s capacity.

After 150 years of colonization and epidemics of influenza, smallpox and measles, the population had shrunk to as few as 300 members in the 1930s, one of them Khelsilem’s grandmother.

Then came the harshest time of the residential school era when children were seized from their homes as part of an explicit federal policy to assimilate First Nations.

“The perception was that our backwardness and our savage ways were from a bygone era that needed to be educated out of us and language was particularly targeted through the residential schools,” Khelsilem said. “For a lot of the older generation, they got whipped and strapped and beat for speaking the language. ...They were pretty vicious about language when (my grandmother) was there.”

Forcing English onto the students in the residential schools was only a part of the blow to the language. A farther reaching damage was being done with the overt and subtle racism drilled into the students, which they gradually internalized and passed on to their own children.

“They were not just robbed of their childhood but they were also taught to self hate their own identity, their own people, their own culture, their own skin colour – that it was something inferior or worthless,” Khelsilem said.

As a result, few of the elders who retained the language passed it on to their children and the numbers of fluent speakers plummeted over time.

Today, Squamish children have access to an immersion class at Capilano Little Ones school on Squamish Nation lands and high school students can take classes in their traditional language while attending North Vancouver secondary schools, but outside the classroom, they are inundated with media and culture dominated by English, Khelsilem said.

“This all leads to today in 2015 where we have seven fluent speakers out of 4,000 people,” he said.

The way forward

Khelsilem’s motivation to start the immersion house was born out of his frustration with a plateau in his own learning.

“Although I had learned the grammatical structures and some of the vocabulary …I just didn’t have enough people to talk to,” he said. “Fluency only comes through immersion.”

His housemates, Josh Watts and Jaymyn La Valle (also his sister), agreed to move into the language immersion house in Lower Lonsdale last fall and make time to study the language and converse. Khelsilem still consults with two of his early teachers, Vanessa Campbell and Peter Jacobs, who has a PhD in linguistics and teaches in the University of Victoria’s Aboriginal Language Revitalization Program.

It’s a model that’s been used effectively, in the Okanagan, the eastern provinces and among the Maori in New Zealand.

Jacobs welcomes the language immersion house as a step beyond the Squamish Nation’s efforts to teach the language.

“We had hoped people would take those tools and use them independently on their own to increase their language abilities. I see the house as one of those steps in our community,” Jacobs said.

And there are others learning the language in school or at home. They will be the pool to draw from when it comes to the next critical step, Jacobs said.

“We probably have quite a few hundred, if not a thousand or more, Squamish people who are taking language class. Some of them have taken them from K-12,” he said. “I think those people are just primed and ready for getting that immersion experience.”

But the house is more of a pilot project than the solution to saving a language from the brink. The next step in Khelsilem’s plan is a crowdfunded, two-year full-time adult immersion academy that will churn out 15 fluent speakers per year.

Khelsilem is particularly targeting the cohort between the ages of 18 and 30, who are the most likely to have children within 10 years, potentially the first generation to speak Squamish as their first language in 100 years.

“From there, we just keep rolling. Within 30 years, we could go from seven fluent speakers to 10 per cent of the nation or more being fluent,” he said. “My dream for this isn’t just in my lifetime. It’s a 100-year, 200-year or 1,000-year vision.”

Khelsilem isn’t looking for the federal, provincial or even Squamish Nation governments to fund the academy, preferring to go right to the Squamish people.

He estimates that if a quarter of the band members put up $20 per month, the school would have enough funding to pay teachers and allow students to focus on their studies full time.

“The invitation to my people is if you really care about the language, here’s an opportunity for you to do something about it,” he said. “Nobody is going to come parachute into our community and save our language for us.”

It’s an ambitious task but Khelsilem only shows confidence and excitement to see it executed. Still, he is deferential to the teachers, elders, linguists and band members who have laid the groundwork to bring the language back from the brink, including Campbell, Miranda, and Jacobs, as well as Audrey Rivers, Val Moody, Becky Duncan and Ray Natraoro.

“I can only do this because people had the foresight and vision to do work with the language before I did,” Khelsilem said.

The drive

For Khelsilem, revitalizing his language isn’t a career or a hobby, but rather an imperative to elevate his people out of the lasting impacts of colonization.

Many of the problems that Squamish Nation and other First Nations members face are attributed to having their identity and way of life stolen from them. Their social fabric, if it is to be mended, has to be done on their own terms and using their own language.

“I really, really believe that through the revitalization of our language, we are able to rebuild our community to be healthier, stronger and more connected. If we have a language that is alive and thriving within the community, then it’s going to create a sense of community that is stronger than what we’d have without the language,” he said.

The language has subtleties and concepts that don’t translate directly into English, so once the language is gone, so are those concepts that have had a place in their way of life for thousands of years.

“It really comes back to that feeling that there is something integral to who we are as a people in our language and if we lose our language, then we’ve lost a huge part of our soul as a people,” Khelsilem said.

The benefits experienced by those who have embraced relearning the language of their grandfathers and grandmothers are immediate and tangible, he said.

“I see young people who have immersed themselves in the culture, immersed themselves in the language and they stand a little bit taller. They stand a little bit prouder. They know ‘I have roots somewhere,’” he said.

Ultimately, he’d like to hear siblings teasing each other, band council members debating policy and arguments being settled in their traditional language.

Reviving the language is also part of a larger goal of decolonization, the careful review of the physical, social, political or cultural systems imposed on First Nations people and leaving behind the ones that harm or hold them back.

“I don’t think of it as turning the hands on a clock back in time. It’s not a wish to be nostalgic about creating a world where we’re living just like our ancestors. It’s saying that the oppressive system that we’ve been forced into through colonization has created a way of life, a way of governance, a way of relationshiping that is not healthy to anybody,” he said.

It also doesn’t mean dispensing with everything that was introduced as a result of colonization as adaptation and innovation are the hallmarks of any successful people, he said.

Decolonization isn’t a concept and practice that’s a household term in the wider “settler” community because most of the writing on the subject has been by indigenous people for indigenous people, Khelsilem said, and often, people challenged by the concept or invitation to look at things differently don’t respond well, sometimes with hostility or even racism. But that too may slowly be changing, just as there has been a shift in his generation away from the shame instilled by residential schools.

The dream

Khelsilem has met the elders of his nation in dreams since starting his journey, though he said the experience always felt more like reality than a dream.

“For me personally, these are very spiritual, sacred moments in my life,” he said.

And the experiences have served as a reminder of a lesson he learned as a young man that resonates with him and those he teaches.

“The old people used to say that everybody in this world is born with a gift but your ancestors may come to you at some point and give you more gifts. They said to us, ‘What are you going to do when your ancestors come to give you gifts and you don’t know what they’re saying to you?’”

See Khelsilem’s Squamish Language Academy website at