“Once you write it down, you cannot take it back.”
That’s what Ed Leon Sr. told his daughter-in-law Siyamtelot Shirley Leon back in the 1970s.
At that time, the Stó:lō people were beginning to think about how to best preserve the Halq’eméylem language for future generations.The Coqualeetza Elders Group took on the task of turning it into a written language.
It was a massive undertaking by the elders, and one that Leon and Sharon Syrette share in their new book.
“We wanted to tell the stories,” Syrette said about the book. “Not just the history of the language and how they worked with the linguist. But we wanted to tell the story of those individual people.”
Courage to Speak: Honouring Ancestors Voices tells the stories of the 10 first graduates of the Halq’eméylem Language Teachers training, and focuses specifically on three women: Qw’etosiya Nancy Phillips, of Sts’ailes; Siyamiya Amelia Douglas, of Sts’ailes; and Xwiyálemot Matilda Gutierrez, of Chawathil.
“None of them were really well educated,” Leon said about the graduates of the program.
“Their memories of education were so negative and horrific that they probably never really focused on what education meant. They just were so involved with just maintaining life, their own life and their families.”
The book doesn’t shy away from some of the troubles those individuals experienced, but focuses more on their successes with the Coqualeetza Elders Group and everything that came afterwards.
They demonstrated their knowledge, confidence, pride and self-esteem as they learned, an excerpt from the book reads, and maintained their sense of dignity as they corrected one another, laughed together, and created the grounding for the written words that were being recorded.
The elders met weekly, and soon partnered with American linguist Brent Galloway to begin recording Halq’eméylem and documenting it in the Standard Writing System, a combination of the International Phonetic Alphabet and the English alphabet.
Although Galloway was not Indigenous, he had a fascination with unusual languages and wanted to help preserve them.
His involvement came at a crucial time for the language, as there were only around 40 elders who were completely fluent in the language. He estimated that by recording the language, they would be able to save 95 per cent of it.
“Communication in the total sense of the word is what started to happen,” Leon said.
“It wasn’t a process of superiority or condescension. It was as equals.”
Leon was never an official part of the language program — she wasn’t fluent in Halq’eméylem, although she was on the board of directors for Coqualeetza — but when she wasn’t busy raising her five children, she would “sneak off” to the meetings and listen.
Her memories of those meetings and the people who were involved are an essential part of Courage to Speak, and are the reason the book was ever made at all.
“Nobody appreciated how this was a cultural shock to them,” Leon said about the process. “That’s what always motivated me.”
When Leon became a founding member of the Aboriginal Genealogy Society in 2008, she realized just how important these stories were.
“I started talking to Sharon about it, and then she said, ‘Why don’t we just write about it?’”
Syrette, another founding member of the Aboriginal Genealogy Society, partnered with Leon to begin writing the book in 2017. The society had received a New Horizons for Seniors grant, which they decided to put towards publishing endeavours.
Four years later, the book is finally in their hands — although it has changed a lot along the way.
“It was going to be the history of the change from oral to written,” Syrette explained, “and then it became the story of those individual people who were involved.”
Then, the pair wanted to discuss what has happened with the efforts to preserve the language since it had been written down in 1976.
Changes were made throughout the entire process, and even after the book was technically finished.
“It says September 2020 in our copyright, but that’s not entirely accurate because we had to make more changes,” Syrette said, laughing.
Now, the book is officially complete and the two women are hoping to share it with educators in universities and high schools, as well as the general public.
“People don’t know it was not a written language until the late ’70s, early ’80s. And so we need to start putting some of that information out,” Syrette said.
“Certainly there’s Zoom and all this other technology … but a book in your hand that you can pick up at any time” is still an important way to reach people.
Nearly all the elders profiled in the book have since passed away, with the exception of Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips, who was only in her 30s when she was an honourary elder working on the project.
Leon herself is now in her 80s, and she hopes the stories of these men and women will help inspire young Indigenous people to keep working towards their own goals.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Leon said. “And I believe those kinds of stories need to be told to our young people, because they’re still facing a lot of stereotyping” in the education system.
And for non-Indigenous readers, she hopes the book will serve as a reminder for them to consider other cultural ideas.
“It doesn’t hurt for us to remind each other of where are shortcomings are,” Leon said, “and look at our own attitude of how we treat other people from different cultures.”
Books are $20, and anyone interested in purchasing one can contact Leon or Syrette directly, or contact the Aboriginal Genealogy Society through email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (604-615-6082).
Paypal is accepted, and books can be mailed to people outside the Lower Mainland.