“The universe was in darkness.”
And with a sudden burst of light, life formed.
According to Squamish hereditary chief Ian Campbell, this is a universal story for many people around the world. For the Squamish people, it was a box of light that Raven and Seagull opened “with the breath of life”.
Since this birth of their first ancestors, Campbell says, Squamish mythology and history has emphasized a rhythm of flourishing, crashing, and building up again, particularly the societal “crash” experienced with the Great Flood following the most recent ice age.
In regards to language and culture, the chief argues that his people are in a chapter of building up slowly again.
With only about 10 fluent speakers of Squamish (a Coast Salish language) remaining—among many other endangered indigenous languages in British Columbia—one can see that First Nations face immense challenges following colonization. Some languages, like Halkomelem, have a couple of hundred speakers but are still vulnerable to decline. Others, such as Penlatch from Vancouver Island, already have no speakers.
“If you think about it,” Campbell explains, “colonization is just like a modern flood.”
Indeed, according to a 2010 report by the provincial First Peoples Council, only 5.1 percent of all First Nations in B.C. were fluent in their native tongue. “Myself, my mother, and my grandmother were all residential-school students,” explains instructor Vanessa Campbell (no relation to Ian Campbell) of the Squamish Nation education department. “So that was three generations where the language was not allowed to be used in a daily way.”
Inspired by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, Campbell, among others, began the immense efforts required to revitalize the Squamish language through community classes, public-school courses, and the creation of a written form of language that stems from an oral tradition.
The presence of indigenous languages in postsecondary institutions has grown, particularly in the past two decades. Professor and linguist Patricia Shaw founded (and today is the director of) UBC’s First Nations Languages Program in 1997, which has taught almost a dozen languages, including Halkomelem, Kwak’wala, and Cree.
Shaw recalls creating the program: “I thought, this is my own responsibility, within Canada, to look at these languages” from a linguistic perspective. Since then, Shaw has collaborated with the Musqueam community to teach language courses on-reserve to students and community members who may enroll without pursuing a degree.
Many university programs still face limited staff and financial resources. Observers—including Linc Kesler, UBC associate professor and director of the First Nations Studies Program and First Nations House of Learning—therefore emphasize the benefits of increasing language-learning in the K-12 years. “If people grow up acquiring more than one language, their ability to acquire additional languages is much greater,” Kesler explains. ”So when parents are thinking, ‘Would I really rather my child learning Halkomelem than French?’, yeah, I think that’s not a bad idea at all.”
Kesler says students also learn about “the history of the place that they’ve grown up [in], and that’s something they can carry with them their whole lives”.
Some aboriginal youngsters even have the opportunity to attend “language nests” modelled after those introduced in New Zealand in the early 1980s to revitalize the indigenous Maori language. These nests are immersion-style programs for children in preschool and early elementary-school years.
“I would say the most important thing is the little ones,” says chief Campbell’s sister, Rebecca Campbell, a language teacher and member of the education department. “They’re so proud, and they sing their little songs in the language [with] no fear, no judgements.” She says that learning while young normalizes the language, while older students may be more self-conscious.
Although there are several initiatives ongoing in Squamish education, Chief Campbell is concerned that rates of learning are not matching demographic growth. “Right now, it’s like blowing on the embers of a fire,” he says.
To ignite this flame, Peter Jacobs, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s linguistics department, stresses the need for immersion with older learners as well. Jacobs, a skilled Squamish speaker, helped develop Capilano University’s Squamish-language program and UVic’s indigenous-language revitalization component.
“Over the years, we’ve realized in-school programs are not making fluent speakers,” Jacobs says. Although many students have the required skills, Jacobs says, they require immersion to become fluent. With further development, he believes these languages can survive.
“It’s not a story about loss; it’s about regeneration”, the linguist adds.
Indeed, despite limited resources, it seems that indigenous-language programs will persevere. The Sto:lo Nation’s David Kirk, Capilano University’s First Nations advisor, proudly shared the news that the Coastal Corridor Consortium—an entity made up of board members from First Nations and educational partners to improve aboriginal access to and performance in postsecondary education and training—recently developed a Lil’wat-language program and is creating a Sechelt Nation language certificate.
“It does take a lot of time to have somebody develop and create these [programs] and then have community involvement, [which] is really crucial,” Kirk says. And, of course, there’s the ever-present challenge “of finding a fluent instructor”.
Innovations are also present outside educational institutions. Vanessa Campbell assisted with a First Peoples’ Cultural Council mentor-apprentice language program in Victoria that began in 2010. This year, 43 mentor-apprentice pairs participated.
Technology also has a role to play. The website FirstVoices.com provides language archives for participating communities. And last year, the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society in Kamloops used a provincial grant to create a Nintendo DSi game to teach children Secwepemctsín (also known as Shuswap).
Even smartphone apps for learning indigenous languages have been developed, including The Story of Kalkalilh, in which Chief Campbell translated a traditional Coast Salish myth with the Bramble Berry Tales app. Bramble Berry has created three interactive storybooks of Coast Salish myths.
The chief stresses the importance of apps due to their accessibility and children’s “innate ability” to handle electronics. “I think in the olden days, they would have utilized the best tools available to them, and today’s no different,” he says. Campbell also translated a show centred on aboriginal youth, and he recently completed another project, Amy’s Mythic Mornings, with the same producer. The animation series also depicts traditional mythology and will soon be broadcast on APTN in Canada.
Outside technology, there’s also hope that a resurgence of traditional activities such as weaving and canoeing will have a positive influence on language revitalization.
Looking at these examples of language preservation, it seems revitalization is mostly hindered by lack of resources—both in people and finances. “There’s a genuine interest from the community,” chief Campbell says, “but where they are accessing the language is very limited.”
On that note, the chief harks back to his nation’s mythology and expresses again his conviction that First Nations are “mid-transition” between crashing and flourishing, adding: “I realized this [rhythm] isn’t just the history of the Squamish people; it’s the history of humanity.”
Campbell’s hope is that, eventually, a percentage of the Squamish Nation’s revenue will be dedicated to a “language and heritage department”. He also expresses a desire for the band’s internal documents to all be rendered in the traditional language. More than anything else, the chief emphasizes increased accessibility to the language and tenacity in the face of the many challenges.
“We’re still here; we’re not a vanished race.”
Chief Campbell’s words seem to encapsulate the efforts being made to preserve First Nations languages and culture in both B.C. and across Canada. With so many of B.C.’s indigenous languages considered endangered, one hopes that if the First Nations have, in fact, faced a “modern flood” with colonization that the 21st century brings a genuine period of flourishing after the crash.