Listen to Carleen Thomas teach Hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm’ and talk about the importance of First Nations language
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Carleen Thomas makes the short walk from her office to the preschool at the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) reserve in North Vancouver, toting a traditional hide drum over one shoulder, rattling turtle shell noisemakers in her pockets and smiling warmly. An energetic assembly of “little ones” greets her at the door, eager for the day’s lesson in Tsleil-Waututh language and culture.
Among them is two-and-a-half-year-old Kiera, who gets her radiant red hair from her Irish mother and her love of Thomas’ lessons from her First Nations father. Ten-month-old Nolan is just old enough to join in and has quickly mastered his wolf impression.
Thomas runs Hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm’ language lessons for the kids at the Takaya Child and Family Development Centre. Hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm’ is a severely endangered Coast Salish language spoken by several First Nations in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
Thomas teaches them the basics — numbers and animals — but it’s an opportunity many of their parents and grandparents never had.
Colonial policies intended to force assimilation, such as residential schools, triggered a drastic decline in speakers of Aboriginal languages across Canada. A growing body of research is connecting the loss of language to many of the health challenges that First Nations communities face today.
The evidence suggests that language is a critical component of cultural identity, which is essential to the mental, physical and spiritual health of First Nations.
The Cultural Identity Puzzle
Thomas looks at cultural identity like a puzzle to which her people have long been missing pieces. Her trips to the TWN preschool are her contribution to language and culture revitalization, something she believes is essential to the path of healing for her people.
“I think just having access to the language, being able to learn the language, and hopefully someday becoming fluent in the language will just add another piece to that puzzle — to make it whole,” she says.
Though First Nations cultures were decimated by a number of colonial influences, Thomas says that “it was residential schools that robbed us of our language.”
Residential schools forbade Aboriginal children from speaking their own languages. It’s a ban that Patricia Shaw, director of the First Nations Languages Program at the University of British Columbia, says has had enduring effects.
“Many other attitudes came along with that prohibition, attitudes that engendered shame in their language,” she says.
“That’s a horrific psychological legacy that has been carried forward.”
Though never having attended a residential school herself, Thomas has witnessed their impact on her people for her entire life.
“When culture is removed from an Indigenous group, it doesn’t matter in which form, to me it leaves a gaping hole,” she says. “And how do you fill that?
“People turn to addictions to fill those types of losses … Even though we may not have suffered the same losses that our parents and grandparents have, we still grew up with that because it is all our parents knew.”
Thomas is not alone in her sentiments. Recent academic and health research has begun to provide empirical evidence to support the idea that there is an intrinsic link between elements of culture — language, in particular — and the well-being of First Nations communities.
Michael Chandler, a psychology professor at UBC, has spent the majority of his career exploring these connections. In 2007, Chandler co-authored a study that examined the link between several cultural factors and youth suicide rates in 153 First Nations communities across B.C.
The researchers found that an absence of Indigenous language was common to every community with abnormally high suicide rates.
Chandler says the finding was not unexpected because language is central to a person’s identity. Without a sense of identity a person is more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviour.
“You must own your past and have a commitment to your future,” he says. “If you don’t have a commitment to your own future, you wouldn’t put up with the aggravations that you put up with for future benefits.
“If the language is lost, it impairs that Indigenous way of knowing.”
The First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council wrote in a 2010 report that “a healthy language means healthy individuals, healthy communities and contributing members to society.”
Michelle George, a mother of three who works in the education office at TWN, says that working with HIV positive youth for nearly 17 years helped solidify her belief in the power of identity.
“The more you know about yourself, where you come from, who you are and what responsibilities (you) have, the more likely you are to take care of yourself,” she says.
Many who study endangered Indigenous languages worry about what completely losing a language would mean for the future mental, spiritual and physical well-being of First Nations. Chandler is quick to point out however, that grassroots efforts to rehabilitate language can foster notably positive impacts.
“Community involvement is the key,” the academic says.
‘Borrowed language’: Challenges to revitalization
Thomas’ lessons at the preschool are an important step in the long process of bringing TWN’s ancestral language back to the community, which currently has no fluent speakers.
“Our language is gone,” says Rueben George, a TWN family counselor, spiritual leader and a Sundance chief.
“What I’m speaking is a borrowed language.”
If the language were to go extinct, the Tsleil-Waututh people would lose intrinsic values encased in their language, including many concepts about well-being that do not exist in English.
“They don’t translate well,” Michelle says. “When we try to find the closest word we can, sometimes lessons get lost, meanings get lost.
“Imagine trying to hand down something for 50 years without that language attached to it. Think of all the things that get lost, think of all the things we can’t teach each other.”
If ancestral languages disappear, it may become impossible to complete the puzzle of cultural identity.
Shaw says that a serious impediment to language revitalization is a history of psychological trauma that First Nations communities grapple with.
“For them to even uncover the layers of the language underneath, entails trying to work through all of those attitudes and fears that the trauma had built up on top of their language,” she says.
But that reclamation effort is vital, language experts conclude.
For Thomas, the opportunity to add the missing piece back to her own identity puzzle came in 1997 after she enrolled at UBC to earn her teaching degree, as a mature student.
That same year, the UBC linguistics department partnered with the Musqueam Nation to offer classes in the dialect spoken by Musqueam people — a dialect which is almost identical to that traditionally spoken by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
Thomas considers the coinciding programs to be more than a stroke of luck.
“It was just fate,” she says with a smile. “Or destiny.”
Thomas wants to expand the language lessons at the preschool into a course geared toward adults. She hopes to partner with Musqueam First Nation, a much larger Nation with a wealth of linguistic resources, to make the adult program a reality within five years.
In the meantime, Tsleil-Waututh teens are creating their own opportunities to connect with their ancestral past much sooner. Selina Beltram, a 16-year-old community member, has arranged for elders and youth to make a cultural pilgrimage up Indian Arm for an overnight trip of legends, language and open discussion about what it means to be Tsleil-Waututh today.
Beltram thinks it’s time to begin exploring the prevention of mental health conditions and addictions, rather than cope with the consequences. She’s tired of hearing, “don’t do drugs, don’t do this, don’t do that,” when talking about health in her community.
The teen believes that exposing young people to more culture will help her community bond.
Thomas considers herself fortunate to have heard the language as a child. Her grandfather would use it when he told stories around the kitchen table. She recalls him lapsing into Hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm’ whenever he got passionate about something and couldn’t think of a proper English translation.
As an adult, she jumped at the opportunity to be able to learn enough to share with her own children, and later, her grandchildren.
“I thought, you know what? I need to learn something,” she says. “If I don’t at least try, then the link will be completely gone.”
However, even after several years attending classes at UBC, Thomas still considers herself to be far from fluent.
Shaw says that it can be very difficult for English speakers to learn Hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm; the language includes 22 consonant sounds not heard in English. She says that learning it as a child can make it easier to adapt to the unfamiliar sounds.
Thomas agrees. “It’s like planting a seed, planting an idea, a concept,” the teacher says. “The kids learn so quickly,”
She hopes that the seeds of language she has planted in some her Nation’s youngest members will grow and bear the fruit of a healthier future for her community.
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Kendall Walters is a Vancouver-based multimedia journalist; she recently finished her Master of Journalism at UBC. Lucas Powers will be interning at CBC Radio in Toronto and at CBC’s London Bureau this summer.