Rise of the revivers

Covid-19 has made Lisa Sambo want to say, “It’s good to see you.” More than that, it’s made her acutely aware of how much she’d like to hug people, to greet them with an over-the-top enthusiasm, to tell them she loves them. She laughs at herself when she shares this with me. “You know what I mean, right?”

She thought about getting t-shirts printed with “I love you” written on them, but then she tried to imagine her father wearing one. Not everyone can enthuse with equal openness. (We huggers and casual I love you droppers are aware that we are outliers.) And so she thumbed through an online dictionary of greetings and phrases, and finally settled on “It’s good to see you.”  

Áma s7ats̓xentsína!

Sambo is an early childhood educator by training, the Director of the N’Quatqua Child and Family Development Centre and a member of the N’Quatqua First Nation.

She had been inspired by a rousing call to action issued by Wanosts’a7, Dr Lorna Williams, a Lil’watul leader in education and an internationally lauded champion of language revitalization.

“Indigenous languages, the languages of our land, of each of our lands, are spoken nowhere else on the planet, so when they go, they’re wiped from the land. And we cannot let that happen. Our languages are the voice of our lands. Our languages keep our connections to the ancestors. They’re our connections to the descendants, it’s the legacy, wisdom and knowledge that we leave those who come after us, and we need to keep clear about those responsibilities that we have to our descendants. I have university credentials but these are my true credentials for speaking about language revitalization: I have known language loss. I have known what it’s like not to be able to communicate, not to have a voice, not to be understood, not to be able to make myself understood. I know what that feels like. When I came back from residential school and my spirit was broken, it was the old people who I lived amongst, who recognised it and did something about it. So I relearned my language.”

The video of Wanosts’a7 (Dr Williams) speaking these words, addressing a conference was, says Sambo, “like a language love bomb.”

Wanosts’a7 Dr. Lorna Williams, Lil’watul, Member of the Board of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation and Professor Emerita of Indigenous Education, University of Victoria at HELISET TŦE SḰÁL – ‘Let the Languages Live’ – 2019 International Conference on Indigenous Languages. Image provided the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Here, Dr Williams is joined by friends and relatives, including Tracey Herbert (CEO of the First People’s Culture Council), and N’Quatqua and Lil’wat language champions, Tsá7ts7acw Joyce Thevarge, Saw̓t Veronica Bikadi, Georgina Nelson, Lisa Sambo, and Skícza7ul Heather Joseph, singing the Women’s Warrior song. (Apologies to those I have not identified… am happy to alter the caption if you can help me!)

So, last June, she attended the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL (Let the Languages Live) international conference, in Victoria, BC. It was the only Indigenous-led international conference held to mark the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages. The conference brought together over 1000 language specialists, Knowledge Keepers and community champions from 20 countries. Dr Williams was a keynote speaker.

Sambo, who is quite happy living a quiet life in D’arcy, and doesn’t seek out big crowds, big conferences or big adventures, was blown away by the experience. And overwhelmed. And not sure where the heck to start.

More precisely, Sambo felt fear and shame. She’d been working at the daycare at the N’Quatqua Child and Family Development Centre since 2005. Language and culture were always on the agenda. “But we always focussed on culture,” she admitted. “Language just felt so unattainable. So overwhelming.” So many ways they might do things wrong. And not even know it. So, all the kids would really learn to say in Ucwalmícwts was: “there’s six green frogs.” Sambo grieved this. Not only does she have to answer to the questions of parents (“what’s that going to do for my son?”) and funders and bureaucrats (“how did you spend this money?”), she also has an 8 year daughter who asks even harder-to-answer questions, the out-loud and the underlying ones, like, who am I? And, what is my place in this world?

At the conference, she learned that a good place to start, (so that your daughter can learn that there are words and teachings that clearly and beautifully speak to her place in the world and the great love the ancestors and the spirits and the land have for her), to revitalize language in your community, is with a language needs assessment. Ask the community: “Where are we at with our language?” The First People’s Cultural Council has been doing this work for a long time – and doing it well – against odds, brick walls and strategically placed stumbling blocks. It’s why BC has one of the greatest diversities of indigenous languages anywhere, and why BC had the capacity to host an international conference. They have developed resources to support language needs assessments. There is money available.

And there is the tragic gap, a vast delta between what can be done, and the actually doing of it.

Sambo didn’t want to wade into that delta, alone. She didn’t want to put out a survey that would require her relatives to say, ‘They put pins and needles in my tongue to stop me speaking the language.’

“Knowing that this would be required, for me to ask those questions, and listen to those answers, and notice my uncomfortableness with it, and to continue to breathe… that is the part that terrified me,” said Sambo.

And knowing that she wanted her daughter to be able to play with words, to play with her language, as joyfully as an 8 year old should, moved her into that place of discomfort.

Part two of this story continues next week.

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