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.