I make the time to watch Wanosts’a7 Dr. Lorna Williams’ keynote presentations, which she gives all around the world as a venerated wisdom-holder and expert, which thanks to technology are now often video’d and uploaded. She is a teacher in the truest sense. I transcribe her words because I want to marinate in them. And I usually end in tears because I can feel the depth of her heart – its ache, its longing. One day, I hope I might wield words with such careful power and love.
In June, last year, Wanosts’a7 Dr. Lorna Williams, delivered the keynote speech at the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL – ‘Let the Languages Live’ – 2019 International Conference on Indigenous Languages. We’ve been sharing the story of the medicine Lisa Sambo brought home to her community, N’Quatqua, here and in the Pique.
Now, we’re happy to share Wanosts’a7’s words.
A transcript cannot accurately convey the emotional impact of Wanosts’a7’s words, the way they land in your body… the way I feel myself rise up to her encouragement, or register the impact of loss as she articulates aspects of it so truthfully, or the sense of wonder when she shares the etymology of a word, like the treaure that it is!
So I invite you to set aside 45 minutes and watch it yourself.
Here are a few of my personal takeaways:
A blessing and invitation to the conference attendees:
Nuk’want’ual’wi, in my language, is a plea for you to help one another, to help one another to remember all of the people who want to learn your language.
K’al’an. I want you to listen. Not just to me, but to listen to one another. That is our tradition. To listen, to listen deeply and to learn and to reflect on what we hear.
Ptinusem. I want you to think, think really really hard about how you can take what you’ve learned, what you hear, and to incorporate it into the work that you do.
I’ve watched the language warriors of communities across this country and around the world, who had very little support, very few resouces, but becasue of their creativity, their wisdom, their ability to listen, they put all of that to use.
I want you to appreciate each other. I want you to appreciate yourselves. And what we collectively have been able to do, which is to keep our languages alive. So much effort has been put into silencing us, into shaming us. But, and I see this amongst indigenous peoples around the world – our ability to laugh, our ability to tell stories, our ability to share, our willingness to help… those are what has kept our languages alive. And so I want you to continue those.
Naming the challenges in the quest to make indigenous languages living:
“Trying to put together a mirror shattered in a million pieces – that’s the work that we are doing. It doesn’t refer only to language. It refers to the very fabric of our lives, our knowledge systems, our cultural practices, our traditions. I want you to realise that when we put this mirror together, it doesn’t come out perfect. It might be distorted. There might be missing pieces. We might put pieces together that are upside down. But we’re putting it together. And that’s the most important part of our work. And each of you, in each of our language communities, is doing that work. So I want you, when you look at that mirror, and you see yourself, your families, your communities, your lands, when you see the reflection, I want you to cherish the reflection… even the cracked pieces. We are strong. And resilient. I wanted you to know how cherishing that is.
We live in a world where we’re habituated to live in a colonizers’ language. So, to bring our languages back to every day use, we need to be imaginative, we need to be courageous, we need to be persistent in being able to create those spaces within our families. And that’s a huge challenge, because of the world that we live in, to be able to speak our language, to be able to hear our languages, and to be able to hear those, in our families that often are broken apart, where members of our families live far away, where we come into the habit of not visiting.
One of the most beautiful parts of my family and my community when I was growing up is that people would pál7altsem.
‘The old people lifted each other’s spirits when they came visiting.’
I know you have that word in your language. pál7altsem, in my language is to visit, to go and have a cup of tea with somebody. To go and just sit on the porch and visit, to tell stories, to reminisce, to laugh and joke, to be with one another. Had we not had that, I may not have recovered from my experience in residential school, but it’s because people would come together in such an uplifting way, such a caring way, that we’ve been able to overcome all of those experiences. So I want to encourage you. To bring language back, we need to pál7altsem, to visit one another, to spend time with one another and in our communities we need to be able to do that.
When we bring our language, to those activities, to those ways of being, [to our cultural practices and our ways of being with the land] it helps us to understand and to appreciate the beautiful beautiful ways in which we see the world. It’s the way that we name he world. That we realize our uniqueness. When I began my talk, I said that I was happy that you’ve come together and I used a particular word that I always teach my students… and that word is kamecwkalha. (Listen to the video at 24:39 to hear Dr Williams says this word.)
Kamecwkalha is a very special word. It means… and I can feel it in this room, and I felt it very quickly yesterday, it means when people come together for a common purpose and they spend time together, they eat together, they greet each other, they tell each other stories, what happens is very quickly, there’s a flow that seems to go, that moves amongst the people… that flow is energy. When you feel that flow of energy, that moves through the group of people like you, like all of us here today, that is the moment in time that people know that they can get a job done. That’s when they know that people can put their minds together, to be able to do what might seem impossible.
So that word is really really important. I know that there is a word like that in every one of your languages, because it is something that is important, necessary – in communities, especially that were oral speaking language based communities, because people had to be able to share with one another freely, without fear and without shame, to contribute your knowledge, your wisdom, your experience, to make sure that good decisions are made. So Kamecwkalha is a very special word.
Because the words in our languages are usually built from a root word, I thought, so what does that word mean? Where does it come from? And what is at its core? And where is this “flow”? The flow, the root, is from our belly buttons. Not from our minds. Not from our hearts. Not from our hands. But from our belly buttons. Because that reminds us of the life-giving force that that is.
So you can see why it’s important to contemplate and to think about our languages. We learn, we can learn, so much, just looking inside our languages. We learn who we are.