Language and Place: unpacking the complexity of decolonizing our tongues and actions
The following content documents the four-part conversation series hosted by EartHand Gleaners Society as part of the 2021 Artists in Residence Project: Down from the Mountains: into the City with Cease Wyss and Jolene Andrew.
Conversations took place virtually from November 2021 to January 2022 and included the perspectives and reflections of Senaqwila Wyss, Meagan Innes, Cease Wyss, Jolene Andrew, Tori Clark and Jazz Whitford.
EartHand gratefully acknowledges the financial support of BC Arts Council Resilience funds and City of Vancouver Cultural Services: Community and Artists Shifting Culture for making this project possible.
Synopsis of Conversations: Meagan Innes
Part 1: A conversation about the challenge and complexity of returning language to place with respect and honour.
Prework recommended viewing:
Jolene Andrew, Tori Clark, Cease, and Senaq Wyss show up to support the family via Zoom in all their beauty to talk about the challenges and complexities of returning to language and place. Senaq carefully picked up the work to begin the conversation about the importance of language revitalization. Her words circled around the importance of reviving ancestral place names. Senaq explored the differences between ownership and stewardship. Then the conversation stalled when it came to how institutions now want to steal our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim for questionable translations and cheap acts towards “reconciliation”. Institutions want to say to the world: “hey, look we are serious about reconciliation. Here look at our sign it says…??? oh wait I can’t pronounce this” call Senaq she knows. More and more language speakers are sought out to translate certain “buzz words” for titles of articles, for events, for place names unknowingly invoking the spirits of our ancestors, While glossing over how deeply hurtful this process can be for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim language learners. This is not settlers’ work. This work belongs to the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Peoples here in Vancouver.
Historically language was stolen, beaten, and erased from our tongues. This brings up very real physical, emotional, mental, spiritual reactions. So much is woken up and stirred up when it comes to language learners stepping into the process of language revitalization. This work is complex and what is not usually talked about is the deep hurt that comes with learning the language of your ancestors. There is a deep shame in not understanding suffixes, prefixes, and the way to use them. There is shame in not being able to pronounce certain glottal and vernacular stops. There is shame in not being able to articulate ideas, there is shame in not being able to pray to our ancestors. Then there is the added layer of loneliness, the loneliness of not having anyone in your direct family that can help. There is hurt that comes with learning Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim and this hurt is different for every learner. Historically our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim languages have been stripped off our tongues and hearts through federal oppressive policy.
Paradoxically, there is also a deep joy, a pride that is developed as one starts to think and even dream in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim is so specific, so beautiful, so melodious, so connected to place. Our language is interwoven, knotted, and tied to the land itself. Cease states; “our lands and our waters tell us stories that are there for us to learn from”. After all “we don’t own the land but only have the safekeeping of it for our children” just like our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim it is up to Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim language learners to be the safe keepers of our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim for the generations to come.
If you are reading this and feel overwhelmed to do something, think about donating to this language revitalization work through KAS see link below.
Part 2: Names of plants and decolonizing our tongues
Prework recommended viewing:
The role of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim language work is especially important to me as this is the language of my ancestors and one of the many languages spoken here on Coast Salish territory. Language revitalization is deep and humbling work. The work to revitalise a language takes commitment and sacrifices that therefore impact an entire Nation. Language revitalization asks students to delve deep into their history, kinship, and connection to the land. Students are challenged mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally and in the process of revitalising a language, students are actively working through intergenerational trauma and the impacts of contact and colonisation. This is not easy work but it is necessary work; ensuring one knows who they are and where they come from. Language helps to connect one to place, identity, culture, and spirituality.
Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim connects me to my Ancestors. Language revitalization also includes culture and ceremony thus leaving students with a greater sense of belonging. Culture and language are deeply entwined and the language holds a very specific Sḵwx̱wú7mesh worldview and perspective. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh: songs, origin stories, prayers, and ways to identify ourselves, our kin, and our specific ties to place are so important. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim is the language of my family and revitalising the language of my ancestors is so important. Through Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim I am learning different ways of understanding: place, family, feelings, spirituality and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh worldview. This is what has been missing in my family for two full generations because of Indian Residential Day School. It is my sacred connection to my ancestral language Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, that helps my healing, pride, and self-love. This work is important.
I see a progression of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim language in the songs I sing. I notice my voice no longer shakes when I am singing our traditional songs. I also notice my body language has moved from one based in fear to one that exudes confidence and pride. I feel the importance of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim language in my body and in my spirit. It is the ancestors I get to commune with in the early light of day when I go to the water. I know Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim has deeply transformed me. And in the end, all of this is for the children because “the only thing the world needs is for every child to grow up in happiness” (George, 2004, p. 85).
Part 3: Pushing Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments
Prework recommended viewing:
Acknowledging traditional territory has become just a part of the all-inclusive workplaces agenda. However, not too long ago those who chose to acknowledge territory in a truthful manner by using the words: unseeded, stolen, unsurrendered were deemed “radical”. These types of “radical” acknowledgments made settlers uncomfortable and defensive. This usually led to parking lot conversations about why traditional acknowledgments were necessary. And often Indigenous educators were not given a second chance to open events and meetings;the truth was left off the agenda to “keep the peace”. I know that acknowledging the truth about Canada’s history is not easy but this is important work. In institutions now I am not sure how much of the traditional territory acknowledgment is lip service and how much of it is deep gratitude for settlers who find themselves, guests, here on beautiful Coast Salish territory? I wonder how many guests truly embrace the historical truths here on Coast Salish territory?
In this work there is a tangle of land and language politics.
I often ask if my allies know how important language revitalization work is and question what is being done in support of this work? Senaq says that when she is teaching her children the language it is arduous and challenging but it is a choice she does not have. Senaq talks about how teaching the language “takes grandparents, , friends, siblings, family to help the process. But what if you don’t have this? What if you have only a handful of language speakers left in the world?
The data on present Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim first language speakers is two, we have only two first language speakers left in the world. We lost our last first language speaker last year. We have many “silent speakers” who were born between 1940-1947 that were born into Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim speaking homes. as well but I have yet to meet them and learn alongside them. According to the UNESCO Vitality Index, our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim is a “critically endangered language.” Critically Endangered (1): The youngest speakers are in the great-grandparent’s generation, and the language is not used for everyday interactions. These older people often remember only part of the language but do not use it, since there may not be anyone to speak with (Endangered Languages, 2003). UNESCO Vitality Index states that “language diversity is essential to the human heritage. Each and every language embodies the unique cultural wisdom of a people. The loss of any language is thus a loss for all humanity” (Endangered Languages, 2003).
On top of all this remains the notion of survivors guilt when it comes to language revitalization. Senaq asks herself why do I get to learn snichim? Why me?
There are some elders that don’t get this opportunity”. This is one account of the importance of language revitalization work along with the many woes. This story is shared so that next time it is your turn to acknowledge traditional territory and you utter the words “I give thanks to those whose traditional territory I live, work and play on the traditional territory of the….”STOP. When acknowledging the territory why is there gratitude for “playing on our territory” that is hurtful. Just “playing” on the traditional territory is not enough. Land back is what we need. If more people stopped to think about the Indigenous children who never got to “play” on their traditional territory, it changes this sentiment forever.
Senaq goes on to explain this notion through an example from the Vines Festival, artist Raven John asks members of the audience to: “reflect back…to think about the most beautiful memory you have here in Vancouver. Think about the happiest moment in your life. And then to think about whose lives are ruined for these memories. Who’s lives were sacrificed to see that beautiful sunset? Whose land was stolen so you can “play” on that playground? Whose longhouses were destroyed and pushed into the ocean? There have always been Indigenous Peoples here before you. Who was removed, murdered, buried in these exact places? Settlers starting happy lives on our Coast Salish ancestor’s graveyards need to think about these things and acknowledge the truth. Senaq goes on to explain that with that comes a deep and all-encompassing grieving, a grieving that the language is not spoken on the land, a deep grieving for the lack of knowledge for tree identification, and grief around trying to explain this, grief around trying to explain why acknowledgments are important.
Jolene shares some insight on traditional acknowledgments; she invites folks to “not compare our other histories during your acknowledgments” and to consider how are you supporting sovereignty specifically through land back?. Acknowledgments can cause tension and can perpetuate anti-indigenous sentiments. Jolene asks folks to think about “how allies are unintentionally weaponizing indigenous peoples’ knowledge to advance settlers’ political and environmental agendas. Jolene says “using indigenous knowledge as a political weapon is a truth that Indigenous Peoples face on a daily basis”. I ask are you ready to acknowledge this truth? And what steps are you and your institution taking to support sovereignty, especially through the returning of our traditional lands, waterways, shores and foreshores?
Part 4: Honouring the Life of Plants
Prework recommended viewing:
This virtual meeting brings us all together to speak about honouring the life of plants. The process so far has been a beautiful sharing of knowledge about plants. We started the session by introducing our collective ancestors and bringing them into commune with us by name. This is important if I want the work to go well. The introductions to our ancestors and our plant kin allow us space to time travel. To travel back in time to share stories of growing up, sharing teachings from our grandparents, great grandparents. To share knowledge about medicines. Knowledge about the land and the heart work in relating to plants as Kin. If you listen, plants can share many things. If you take the time you can learn about your collective Ancestors through plant kin.
Sometimes the sharing of the plants and their family members, their essence, their spirit, their medicinal properties is really challenging. Knowing that traditional ecological knowledge and ancient ways of caring for our plant kin have been disregarded since contact. Now that the world is in the state that it is now, we can clearly view that devastation of contact and the commodification of all plant things turning back to traditional ecological knowledge seems to be the answer. However, there is weariness when it comes to sharing not only the truths about the plant kin but also the sacred teachings, language, protocols, and culture. When so much has been stolen, disregarded, ignored, and destroyed how can I trust those I share this ancient knowledge with?
Yet knowing that the teachings ask us not to be stingy, to share. Knowing that this knowledge is not just ours and can prove useful to help those sick and in need. This double-edged sword is what you live by when you are forced by contact to live in two worlds At one time this knowledge and the care for plants kin was a reciprocal relationship based on trust and love. Now, what are we trading for this knowledge? How are we ensuring that you have taken the time to develop relationships that are reciprocal?
Yet I know this reciprocal relationship is not always reciprocated. When this relationship is not honoured, and traditional ecological knowledge is used as a commodity it breaks down and disrupts the natural order.. I have seen traditional ecological knowledge written down, memorised, and then shared back with no regard to the author of the work or the truth of where it came from. In this session, I shared about my relative Devils Club. I was careful about just how much I shared knowingly leaving out locations, seasonal times to harvest and ceremony that goes along with pulling my relative’s roots from the earth, the many steps of care to ensure it is ready to help, and then the many steps it takes to process devils club. I also left out what it can be used for, what ailments it can aid, and how to take care of that which is leftover. I think about all the hours I have spent, all the time I have spent sitting with wisdom keepers, elders, and my relative devils club itself to listen, learn and act and I ask myself should I be sharing this over a Zoom meeting to perfect strangers? My answer is no.
It is my thought that all the plants on Turtle Island deserve reverence and respect for who they are and what they do. I have been sharing about how we can better create a relationship with our plant kin that is reciprocal and based on respect. Please ask yourself what you can give plants? Rather than what can plants give to you? Viewing our plants as siblings rather than a commodity that can be taken, bought, and sold with no regard for plants that are endlessly generous and kind is yet another form of genocide. I ask after reading these personal thoughts what are you going to do for your plant kin? How will you move to build reciprocal relationships based on love and trust with plant kin and all folks?
Meagan Innes, March 2022
On behalf of
EartHand Gleaners Society
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