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Meá:ylexw: Reviving an indigenous language on the brink of extinction

Abbotsford school district program teaches an ancient language to young students

The six vowels and 36 consonants reverberate through the longhouse, as young voices speak the long unheard, unspoken and forgotten words that once exclusively defined the Fraser Valley.

It is April, and teams of school-age children are taking turns in front of a panel, who are judging the students on their comprehension, fluency and pronunciation of Halq’eméylem (pronounced halk-uh-may-lem) – the Stó:lô language. Reaching into memories of lessons past, the students find an ancient language and bring it back into the present day, as they vie for school honour, parents’ pride and a big shiny trophy.

READ ALSO: ‘Expressive and picturesque’: The Sto:lo worldview found in Halq’emeylem

But they are also joining forces in a much bolder undertaking – to save a language from the brink of extinction.

There were several hundred fluent Halq’eméylem speakers in the 1940s. In 1993, there were 50 to 75. By 2000, there were fewer than a dozen.

Today, there is one.

Chistine Seymour, the Abbotsford school district’s only Halq’eméylem teacher, watched as three of her students won their division at the annual Halq’eméylem Language Contest on the Sumas Nation reserve.

Team Stqó:ya (Wolf) is made up of Clayton Ritchie, Santino Hakkarainen and Fraser Smith. The WA Fraser Middle School Grade 6 students sacrificed countless recess and lunch periods to huddle around a table in the school’s resource room. There, they practised Halq’eméylem numbers, animal names, greetings and more.

They learned that in Halq’eméylem they say they’ve seen 11 snows – winters – rather than, “I am 11 years old.”

Their motivations for giving up their free time are varied.

“It’s our native language,” says Clayton, who likes that “qó:” is shorter and easier to say than its English equivalent: “water.”

“I like Halq’eméylem because of the trophy – We won first place,” says Fraser.

“It’s kind of relaxing when you get to communicate and work on lessons,” Santino says.

Public schools may seem like an obvious venue to teach a native language, but Canadian institutions have had the exact opposite goal for the majority of their history. For more than 100 years, the federal government waged what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called a “cultural genocide” as it attempted to “kill the Indian in the child” by forcing indigenous children into boarding schools.

Language was a key front in this war against indigenous culture. Residential school children were often beaten and verbally abused if they spoke their mother tongue.

Seymour’s grandmother was a survivor of such a school and struggled to keep Halq’eméylem alive in her home as she raised her family. Even when spoken to in Halq’eméylem, she would respond in English.

“She experienced abuse and she didn’t want my mom to go through that,” Seymour says.

So Seymour grew up hearing little of her people’s tongue. There was the occasional “á:’a” (yes) and “ôwe” (no) from an aunt or uncle, but no sustained conversation, and no stories.

When she was a teen, Seymour began hearing the language more and more. Her grandpa increasingly peppered conversation with Halq’eméylem words when she visited him next door to watch movies and drink Kool-Aid.

“And I’d think, ‘Gee, Grandpa, what’s the point in that?’ And he would talk louder in Halq’eméylem… He did more of that until the day we lost him,” Seymour says. “He wanted us to hear him speak.”

He was not the only one to realize a deliberate effort was needed to revive the language. In the 1970s, linguists began developing the first alphabet to record the language, which until then had been strictly oral. Twenty years later, linguist Strang Burton was hired by the Stó:lô Nation to make audio recordings of the dictionary.

The UBC instructor has worked on Halq’eméylem ever since.

One of his subjects, Elizabeth Phillips, is now the last living fluent speaker.

Phillips has lent her voice to preservation efforts since the 1970s, sitting through countless sessions with linguists. She allowed Burton to place an ultrasound wand on her chin and track her tongue, pinpointing the minute nuances in pronunciation for future generations or students.

The 78-year-old has adapted to modern technology in her efforts to save her mother tongue: she can type on a computer faster in Halq’eméylem than in English and keeps an iPhone close at hand, as Burton, Seymour and others often text her questions, and she texts back in Halq’eméylem.

WATCH: Elizabeth Phillips reads ‘Bear and Coyote’ in Halq’eméylem

Several years ago, Burton set out to record conversational Halq’eméylem. He sat Phillips down with Elizabeth Herrling, another fluent speaker.

Herrling, Phillips recalls, “would start speaking [Halq’eméylem] and then all of a sudden, she would be speaking English. We couldn’t really record and then she just sort of blurted out ‘I can’t carry on’ because she says it would be a flashback to when she was punished.”

Decades later, the residential school experience was still robbing the Stó:lô elder of her own language.

Phillips grew up on Seabird Island, a community of several hundred people near Chilliwack where Halq’eméylem was the first (and, for many, only) language. One day, a priest came and told Phillips’ parents she would be put on a train to Mission. From then on, she was a student at St. Mary’s residential school and only came home during the summers.

“I was usually told to go play with the other children – about 200 girls. I just couldn’t,” she says. “I’d just go wandering about, a lot of time wondering about what Dad is doing now or what Mom is doing and I always thought in Halq’eméylem.”

All these years later, Phillips still thinks in her first language. She stands alone as the last fluent speaker but finds great inspiration in the young students she saw at the Halq’eméylem language contest.

“It’s a wonderful feeling – it truly is,” she says. “I’ve seen all the different ones that are learning the language and there are so many of them. It just gives me a great, wonderful feeling.”

Reviving Halq’eméylem can do more than teach young indigenous kids words they didn’t know before, Seymour says. It strengthens their bond with Stó:lô culture. She points to studies that suggest simply introducing a traditional drum into a community can lower suicide rates and teen pregnancies, and raise graduation rates.

“So they connect the health of the people to the culture,” she says. “It’s special work for me to learn and to share the language with the kids, to keep teaching.”

And she sees improvements. Awareness of Stó:lô culture is increasing among non-indigenous children, and more kids are signing up to learn Halq’eméylem; this year’s contest saw 150 competitors, up from 56 last year. In the fall, Seymour will begin teaching the district’s first fully credited Halq’eméylem course at Yale Secondary.

But there are worries it could all be a lost cause.

The downriver dialect of Halkomelem, Hun’qumyi’num (Halq’eméylem’s “brother language”) recently lost its last fluent speaker.

Seymour says she doesn’t know if too much damage has been done to truly save her ancestors’ language. She fears losing the wealth of knowledge, culture and worldview embedded in Halq’eméylem – a perspective that has slowly opened to her as she learns it herself.

“That thought comes to mind and you feel it in your stomach,” she says. “And you just keep focusing on the kids, keep focusing on the people that work beside you.”

About a month after the contest, Seymour sat down once more with her WA Fraser students – Team Stqó:ya. One by one, she used hand signs and points to illustrations of a snake, frog, wolf and eagle. The boys respond in Halq’eméylem: “álhqá:y, pípehò:m, stqó:ya, sp’óq’es”

Phillips teaches this way, without verbal instructions, because “it omits English because we want them to stay in Halq’eméylem, to think in Halq’eméylem.”

She hopes that one day her students will form their own thoughts in Halq’eméylem, just like Phillips.

The three boys, encouraged by their parents, all plan to continue learning the language. Fraser, for one, says he will keep learning until he is 100 years old.

Perhaps no one wishes for that to come true more than Elizabeth Phillips. She imagines a day where Stó:lô people once more use Halq’eméylem to express their daily joys, sorrows and jokes.

“That is my greatest hope.”


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