Squamish Nation activist plans conference to save First Nations languages in B.C.

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      Dustin Rivers knows that the language of his people has been described as “critically endangered” and “nearly extinct”.

      Unless drastic action is taken right now to save Skwxwú7mesh snichim, the 20-year-old member of the Squamish Nation told the Straight, the language could be gone within 10 years.

      “My opinion is that, if our language dies, then our identity as a nation dies,” Rivers said via cellphone from a ferry in Howe Sound. “If we don’t speak our language, then we’re not Squamish anymore. Then everything else—land, culture, rights, all of it—it doesn’t mean anything.”

      The activist, artist, and writer is well aware that other First Nations languages in B.C. are similarly threatened. That’s why Rivers is helping organize the Save Your Language Conference, which will take place on June 5 and 6 in Vancouver.

      Rivers’s fellow organizers are Evan Gardner and Willem Larsen, two language-revitalization activists from Portland. Gardner is the creator of the Where Are Your Keys? system of language learning, and the pair has taught Rivers how to use the method to teach Skwxwú7mesh snichim to others.

      According to Rivers, the conference is aimed at language activists, First Nations people, and anyone else who’s interested. Participants will learn the Where Are Your Keys? system and how to apply the method to their language. Rivers noted that they’ll also learn how to “pull the language out” of First Nations language speakers, who are mostly over the age of 65.

      Rivers said that the system employs American Sign Language, conversation, and real objects to teach a language.

      “We actually don’t treat it like a language class,” he said. “It’s really designed to be a game—a game that’s kind of fun and active. We actually are able to kind of sneak language teaching into it. It becomes a way that you start communicating within the language as soon as possible.”

      The conference, which will be held at W2 Storyeum (151 West Cordova Street), costs $50 to attend. The registration deadline is June 1.

      Twelve people have signed up so far, and Rivers expects about 50 people to attend.

      On April 30, the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council released a report that said First Nations languages in B.C. are heading toward “imminent extinction”.

      “Based on three variables for measuring language endangerment (speakers, usage and language resources), all of B.C. First Nations languages are severely endangered or nearly extinct,” the report stated. “Some are already sleeping.”

      The report noted Skwxwu7mesh snichim has 10 fluent speakers.

      “I actually think that’s high,” Rivers said. “I think that’s a high number. I think it’s closer to six or seven—or lower.”

      To him, this illustrates the urgent need to train more First Nations language teachers and produce a new generation of speakers.

      “One of the misconceptions is that we can really hold this off—the next generation of youth are going to have to really save this language,” Rivers said. “There isn’t enough focus being paid to the fact that we have to do it now. My thing is that, if drastic change doesn’t happen for my language in the next five years, there’s going to be an even worse situation or within the next 10 years it could completely die off.”

      You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.




      May 22, 2010 at 11:37am

      He's right. So few speak B.C. First Nations languages, education has to start now, or they will be lost.

      Shawn Beal

      May 22, 2010 at 1:47pm

      That looks like American Sign Language to me


      May 22, 2010 at 2:00pm

      Buy a digital recorder.

      Dustin Rivers

      May 23, 2010 at 1:32am

      It is American Sign Language! We use it as a bridge to learning a spoken language. Our brain can learn by body movement, so the hand-signs work fantastic at memory-recall for both vocabulary and grammar.

      Also, I agree about the audio. That video was recorded over skype...lol

      Salty One

      May 23, 2010 at 9:39am

      If aboriginal people don't have a language then they don't have a culture. Lose that, and you become less of a distinct peoples. It's funny, but think about the billion-plus dollars that have been wasted on the treaty process and all the while, right under aboriginal leaders noses, the very thing that makes them 'them' was disappearing faster than the land and resources. Give this 20-year-old kid credit for having more gumshen and sense of priority than his leaders.


      May 23, 2010 at 12:49pm

      Next comes the whining to the government who will waste more of my tax dollars putting some unemployed individuals to work recording the dying syntax on supplied equipment that will never be returned. It will then turn into some long term preservationist scam perpetually on the taxpayer dime.

      If you really want to listen to a dying language go ahead but do not expect any support from my tax dollars.


      May 24, 2010 at 9:38am

      First of all the issue is language preservation. Second the dominate languages English and French are decimating First Nations languages. Third, it was your taxpayer's dollars that got us there in the first place. Fourthly, we do not need your (beelzebub) dollars and probably would not except them simply because you do not care. Your antagonistic approach to probably everything First Nation is based on your idea that your tax dollars are paying for stuff you do not believe in. Fifth, if you do not care for your tax dollars promoting proactive activities that support people that might cost you more in judicial system waste, then go talk with your MLA and stop being such a wuzz about this issue. The young man is working towards making sure that your tax dollar is being used wisely. Finally, if you have nothing to contribute other then your vitrolic dialogue then you have no business giving an opinion about a subject that you obviously have no interest in; other then to register that you care more about money then people.


      May 26, 2010 at 8:35am

      Why doesn't anyone have an exact number on how many speakers are left?
      It might be to little to late, but hopefully it might bring some hope to others that still might have a chance.

      Globally Concerned

      Aug 13, 2010 at 6:58pm

      Excellent well thought out response Linguinni.

      The more I see our globalized system of control work against us all, while we try to do what we all think is best, the more I realize that I and everybody else that is concerned about humanity's future need to get involved. This young man is doing what he can to avert impending disaster within his culture and as such; all cultures.

      Losing The Squamish language is not just a loss to the Squamish people alone. Its not something that will impact Canadian First Nations people by themselves. Humanity will not be able to overcome and adapt to our future problems (societal, economic, environmental - yes they are all the same thing) based on the cultural paradigm of one dominant world view. The more languages we lose the less ammunition we have for change. Change is the law of life - failure to change+failure to live. Its simple - we need all of the info we can get from all paradigms.

      Michael Taiapa

      Jan 10, 2011 at 4:04pm

      The remaining number of fluent speakers 60+ years is cause for great alarm! If you haven't do so already, I suggest that someone go immediately and interview each of these elders (of course, seeking their permission) based on a narrative inquiry format, where the interviewer asks minimal, but relevant questions about the elder's life in particularly with their upbringing and experience with the language and let them do most of the talking. This is critical and can serve many purposes such as: 1) to have a record on file, which can capture oral tradition and historical importance, 2) to preserve the knowledge of the elders for future generations, and 3) to further support your cause. I understand the importance of interviews such as these as we do it all the time here in Aotearoa, to preserve the knowledge of our elders and learn from it before the go the way of all the earth (die) especially when they're in the 65+ years range. To delay could mean a lost opportunity. I wish you well in the work of revitalization of the Squamish language. My last thought would be to say that your government has a ethical, moral and maybe even legal obligation and responsibility to the revitalization, maintenance and development of indigenous languages in the country of your ancestors.

      Kia ora mai ano, MT.