Thompson Rivers University

Preserving words of the past

March 27, 2019

T’exelc (Williams Lake) Band member Marie Sandy is determined to preserve and teach the Secwepemectsin language.

Afraid the language of her ancestors was disappearing, Marie Sandy has worked to learn the words that skipped a generation and is ensuring they passed on to future generations.

The T’exelc (Williams Lake) Band member grew up in a community where many elders had gone to residential schools, including her grandmother. As a result, many did not speak their mother tongue, Secwepemctsín, to their children or grandchildren.

“I was really worried that the language is going to die out. That’s a huge chunk of our culture and traditions,” she said. “If we lose it, it’s gone.”

Sandy grew up immersed in English, but sometimes she would hear the elders use a Secwépemc word. From an early age, she was drawn to her cultural roots. So when she had a choice between Secwepemctsín and French in school, she opted for Secwepemctsín.

She came to TRU to get a degree in arts, majoring in history. Afterward, she took Indigenous language courses through Simon Fraser University and worked at the Secwépemc Cultural Education Society as a language technician. She moved onto a few other positions, then she worked at School District 73 as an Aboriginal education worker and taught students about Secwépemc culture.

But she didn’t have a teaching degree and she wasn’t making a teacher’s wage. So she returned to TRU to get her bachelor of education degree.

“My goal has always been to teach the language,” she said.

In 2015, she began to feel hope that Secwepemctsín won’t fade away, despite efforts in the residential schools to wipe it out.

She was at TRU for the annual Chief Atahm language conference. Chief Atahm is a Secwépemc immersion school serving the Adams Lake, Neskonlith and Little Shuswap Lake bands. The enthusiasm she discovered reassured her.

“I realized the language isn’t going to die.”

Knowing she wasn’t alone strengthened her resolve to learn the language of her past and pass it on.

Sandy is now teaching First Nations languages classes at TRU while working on her master’s degree. Her classroom includes Indigenous students (some are Secwépemc, some are from other nations), as well as international and domestic. Many of them are interested in learning about Indigenous culture, too. Which works for Sandy, since she views culture and language as being intertwined.

“I’m wanting to bring more awareness,” she said.

With 2019 declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, Sandy is seeing events that reinforce her optimism for the future of Secwepemctsín, like the growing number of students signing up for her classes and Tk’emlups te Secwépemc offering celebrations of language gatherings, the first to include storytelling with all levels of Secwepemctsín speakers.

She has also felt some pressure to carry on the language, especially from her elders.

“My Aunt Jeannie is our family’s fluent speaker. She said she is tired, she’s done. She’s ready to retire,” she said. “She’s been telling me for 10 years she’s tired. You need to take over.”

There are others in Sandy’s family working to preserve the language and culture. She has a cousin with the Spi7uy Squqluts Language & Culture Society determined to keep their language and history alive. He is developing language and cultural resources, such as making videos on canning, hide tanning, salmon fishing, traditional medicine plants and, of course, language.

She talks to her nieces and nephews in Secwepemctsín to plant seeds she hopes will grow into an avid interest in learning more of their heritage language. And her Aunt Amy is mentoring her own language learning.

She’s also working with June Kelly at TRU to develop a basic conversational course that would be online for anyone to access.

“I just want to be somebody who can teach the basic language. I want to encourage the younger generation. It’s so important.”

Garry Gottfriedson, a member of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc who teaches Learning Through Indigenous Literature at TRU, said there are 12,000 people in the Secwepemc nation; fewer than 150 are speakers and only half of those are really fluent.

“There are a lot of young people out there trying to preserve the language. Not as many as I’d like to see, but it’s a slow start,” he said, adding he’d like more chiefs and councils getting on board.

“If you don’t have your language, who are you?”

Although more people are learning to read and write in Secwepemctsín (it was only translated into written words a few decades ago), the language is very different when it is spoken.

Speaking the language takes a different part of the brain and a thorough understanding of the nuances of its tones and phrases. Gottfriedson said the written form is a good tool for preservation, but it isn’t as rich as the spoken form.

“It’s world view, it tells us exactly who we are,” he said. “We are unique in our own right, as are all societies and cultures.”

Among the elders of Sandy’s nation who are passing on language and culture is Bridget Dan, one of the last people remaining who worked with Aert Kuipers, a Dutch linguistics professor who studied Indigenous languages in BC in the 1950s to 1970s, and developed an Indigenous language dictionary.

All of this has given her hope for the future of Secwepemctsín.

“I was really worried, but I am definitely a lot more optimistic.”

Her long-term goal is to teach Secwepemctsín in elementary and high schools as well as at TRU. She wants to improve her own Secwepemctsín fluency, so she’ll continue with her mentor/apprentice work with her aunt.

“Some day, I’m going to be one of the language keepers,” she said. “I’m working hard so that I can live up to that title and position.”

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