The words of the land


Part two of a Martlet series on reviving the speaking of Indigenous languages

“I’ll give you a word,” says Lorna Williams, “as an example.” 

Williams is the Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Knowledge and Learning, and a member of the Líl̓wat Nation. She has taught St̓át̓imcets, the language of the Líl̓wat nation,  and researched traditional Indigenous teaching methods. She tells of how she taught Líl̓wat children the concept of community. “I came to the word in my language for family, which is insnúk̓wa7. And in my language, the word for community is insnuk̓wúk̓wa7, which comes from the same word, and it means a gathering of people . . . family . . . community. When I really thought about the word, the root of the word is núk̓. And that word means ‘to help.’ ”

Nick Claxton, the Aboriginal advisor and co-ordinator in UVic’s Faculty of Education, says, “Mainstream education is all about dissecting, breaking things down. It’s a different paradigm. Whereas our traditional worldview is completely different. You can’t separate it from the spiritual world, or spiritual beliefs.” 

Claxton’s first language is English. He is a member of the SȾÁUTW̱ community in W̱SÁNEĆ, and is learning the W̱SÁNEĆ language, SENĆOŦEN. “Our words for salmon — they had spiritual names . . .  and they’re actually relatives’ terms. So you’d speak with them as though they were relatives. So that’s where the connection to language is, so that language makes you see things differently.” 

Williams says, “By knowing the language, you can have an understanding of the way that people construct the world, the way that people perceive the world.”

Valuing linguistic diversity for its engendering of unique thought is a concept at odds with the Western pursuit of linguistic unity. Especially in the English-speaking world, it is often comfortable to be monolingual. 

“First Nations people were never monolingual,” says Williams. “Before there was the exertion of English-only, people always spoke many languages . . . People always knew the other dialects of a language, and respected them.”

While European languages became widespread and unified across diverse groups of people, languages in the Americas were typically used by smaller, more specific communities, and so were more tied to cultural tradition and place. 

“Teaching the traditions in another language would be doing the motions without the understanding,” says Williams. “There are so many understandings that are in the Indigenous languages that don’t exist in English. To perform ceremonies, to practise and participate without the language, would be not really fully understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

“I think it’s even something that’s intangible,” says Claxton, “like a spiritual dimension; it’s a way of seeing the world.” Claxton cites loss of native speakers and loss of traditional land as challenges to language revitalization. “Probably, if you actually went somewhere and learned about it, learned a language, learned a story, it’s different than reading about it . . . Physical connection, I guess. Physical-spiritual connection.” Claxton points at a bistro table and describes it with a SENĆOŦEN word: LETÁM. “A second-language learner . . . could probably begin to learn the language, and start thinking in the language, but you’re still in this world up here now in the present; it’s a totally different object to what your ancestors were faced with.”

Williams also talks about teaching the language out on what she describes as “the land,” rather than in classrooms alone. “For us, that’s where our language is — where all languages come from. It’s the voice of the land,” she says.

What about non-Indigenous people learning these languages?

“I don’t know: there’s a line somewhere, but I don’t know where it is,”says Claxton. “Along with the language, like I said, there’s a connection to the territory, and there’s spiritual beliefs . . . do they keep that up or not? But you know, it’s admirable and honourable for someone to want to learn it.”

Today, there are 20 fluent speakers of SENĆOŦEN, and about 50 Líl̓wat speakers of St̓át̓imcets. The  The first language of most SENĆOŦEN and Líl̓wat people is English. If revival of these communities’ traditional languages continues, will they replace English as their speech of everyday communication? 

“I think that’s what it needs to be,” says Claxton, adding that this will require a lot of work and a lot of time. “Ultimately, I don’t know. I hope, right?”