Revitalizing a lost tongue

The intensive two-day Salish language course was conducted by LaRae Wiley and Chris Park from the Colville reservation.

Ryan Willman

Arrow Lakes News

On November 21 and 22, eight curious and lucky guests from Nelson, Revelstoke and Nakusp were treated to a linguistic treat in the Aboriginal Room of the Nakusp Museum. They had been invited to gather and participate in a unique learning opportunity to complete modules for a language that hasn’t been spoken or heard in the Arrow Lakes basin for a number of years; nsilxcin, or “peoples speech” of the southern interior Salish people.

The intensive two-day Salish language course was conducted by LaRae Wiley and Chris Park from the Colville reservation situated on the states side of the border. Wiley and Park have devoted many years to teaching nsilxcin, first starting out in Wiley’s sister’s basement teaching a small group of girls, then expanding to a school house of their own where they currently host 31 language students.

Wiley was inspired to learn and teach her language while attending her uncle’s funeral a number of years ago. He was one of the few remaining fluent speakers of nslixcin and during the serviceWiley was struck with the realization that in death her uncle’s knowledge was lost.

“Who’s going to learn and pass our language onto our people now?” Wiley asked herself.

Determined to stop the cycle of language death, Wiley and her partner moved to Keremeos to study nslixcin, then returned to the Colville reserve with the intention of speaking Salish exclusively to their daughter and granddaughter. This immersion approach to language caught the attention of other parents on the reserve and soon Wiley was asked to teach neighboring families as well.

In light of the success the teaching couple had worked for in Colville, Park began proposing the notion of sharing the nslixcin curriculum with residents of the Arrow Lakes Basin; an idea inspired by Wiley’s family connection to this region.

“My great-grandmother was born in Nelson,” Wiley explained, “and anyone who is living on this land should learn this language. This is the language of this land.”

Wiley’s family story is part of a larger narrative that includes the Siniext First Nations people.

The Siniext tale is a tragic and controversial one but in short, the First Nations group that claim the Arrow Lakes as part of their home were forced to their seasonal camp in Colville around the same time when borders were being drawn. Caught on the states side, the Siniext people ascertain that the Canadian government seized the unique opportunity to declare their people extinct — a legislation that the government maintains despite loud protests on both sides of the boarder.

In 1972 the Colville reservation was created and the Siniext were folded into the Colville Confederation of Tribes, which includes 12 identified First Nation groups, but for many families, stories of the Sinixt’s lost home in the Arrow Lakes region continued to be told, and the memory held strong.

This enduring tie to the lost lakes on the Canadian side of the border helped create Virgil Seymour’s position as the Arrow Lakes Facilitator of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville reservation and through his cooperation with the Inchelium Language House, the Salish School of Spokane and the Columbia Basin Trust, he was able to accommodate Wiley and Park’s proposal and facilitate the two day language course in Nakusp.

Sharon Montgomery, the Nakusp Museum curator, was approached by the Columbia Basin Trust and asked to host the event.

The curriculum and additional information about the language revival can be accessed online at www.interiorsalish.com.

 

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