Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Canadian Squamish Tribe Trying to Keep Language and Arts Alive

Only two elders from the Canadian west coast Squamish tribe in the Squamish Valley of Britich Columbia currently has the ability to fluently speak the Squamish Nation’s language. Alex Williams and Addie Kermeen, the two elders, are trying to pass on their knowledge. Several other Squamish Valley elders are working towards teaching their people and the community about the Squamish Nation culture. And they claim that their native language plays a large role in this education.

“You can’t teach our culture without our language,” said Shirley (Hum-Te-Ya) Toman. “Teaching our children in English makes it harder.”

The residential schools many Native Canadians attended and the Canadian government’s history of trying to assimilate the First Nations peoples have virtually wiped out many native languages. In these schools, First Nations children were not allowed to speak their own native languages and would be punished if they did.

“You were strapped or put in the closet,” said Toman, who spent five years at St. Paul’s residential school in North Vancouver. “Some had their tongues pierced with a pin and told it was so they would remember to not speak their language.”

Toman had already lost the language by the time she attended residential school because she was the second generation of students and her parents had been told to not teach their children their native tongue.

“We didn’t learn the language because it would threaten our living standards at the schools,” she said. “By not knowing the language we couldn’t be punished for speaking it at the schools.”

Both Squamish elders Kermeen and Williams were able to avoid attending the residential schools by escaping the BC provincial police who enforced First Nations children to attend the schools from 1879 to 1986.

“They hid me away,” said Williams, speaking of his parents and the elders in his Squamish nation community.

Fourteen years ago, Toman, Kermeem, and Williams, all members of the Squamish Valley Elder’s Circle, came together with six others to help heal the suffering they endured at the residential schools.

“I lost everything my parents taught me at those schools,” said Marjery (Lats-Mat) Natrall, a Squamish Elder who attended St. Paul’s. “And once you lose it you can never get it back.”

Bob Baker, a Squamish Elder, spent seven years at St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay and said the Canadian government went so far as to split up children from the same native communities so they wouldn’t be able to speak to each other in their different native languages.

“In order to get our people out of the language and the culture they moved us to where nobody spoke our language,” he said.

“My Dad said there is no use teaching you [the language] you will only go back to school and get beat up,” said Chief Eleanor Andrews, who spent eight years at the Sechelt residential school and is also a member of the Squamish Elders.

Andrews still knows some of her native words but claims it has become difficult for her to pronounce them. Now, the Squamish Valley education department is working in the community to preserve the native language. Native dance classes are held twice a month at Totem Hall, where the native Squamish language is integrated as a part of the singing and drumming.

Williams was involved with the Squamish Valley education department in the creation of a CD-ROM about the Squamish language. This project was made possible through a grant from the First Peoples Language and Culture Council in Victoria, BC.

“We are in the process of creating our second language CD ROM,” said Rose Reimer, the administrative coordinator for the Squamish Valley Education department.

Reimer said preserving the Squamish Nation language is important because it teaches Squamish Nation children about their history.

“For our children to succeed they need to know who they are and where they come from and they have to remember the elders and the ancestors that came before them and what their struggles were and to honor that,” she said.

“As long as we have the recordings and people are willing to learn.


The Squamish Nation in BC, Canada produce some of the most vibrant Canadian aboriginal art. This includes their wonderful Northwest Canadian Indian art wood carvings.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to find out where I can get this cd-rom to teach my children, do you know where we can find it?

Clint said...

Your best bet is to start with contacting the Squamish Nation to see if they can point you in the right direction. Tell them you are trying to reach the people mentioned in this blog post. Their website is www.squamish.net