Students at the Syilx Language School pose for a group portrait during a recent visit from fluent Elder Ułxaníc̓a. The students and school are celebrating completion of the second year of the four-year program. Submitted photo

Celebrating two years of language renewal

The Syilx Language School in Penticton is halfway to its first four-year goal.

A group of Syilx Okanagan First Nation students is celebrating a personal act of resistance and renewal—speaking their Indigenous language, Nsyilxcn.

June 23 marks the second graduation ceremony for the Syilx Language House, which formed in 2015 to bring a group of adult learners to fluency and deliver 2,000 hours of university-level language instruction using a combination of intensive curriculum and regular visits from fluent Elders.

Instructor Sʔimlaʔxw Michele Johnson said the language is critically endangered, and estimated there may be fewer than 100 fluent Nsyilxcn speakers.

Teachers also work with fluent Elders to create and publish audio recordings. Creating new speakers is an incredible undertaking, an act of decolonizing resistance and part of building an ultimate picture of health for Indigenous communities.

“Every day when I come into work I think what an incredible honour and responsibility it is for us to be raising up our language. I don’t think any of us realized how difficult it would be—just the amazing complexity of our language,” said Sʔimlaʔxw. “It took a hundred years of effort to nearly erase our language, and now it will take an almost superhuman effort to relearn it.”

After two full years, there are still seventeen learners in the program, including the two co-teachers, Sʔimlaʔxwand Qʷy̓qʷʕayáx̌n Levi Bent. This June 23 marks the halfway point of a four-year program and a graduation ceremony to celebrate the second successful year. Students will receive a 900-hour Certificate of First Nations Language Proficiency from Simon Fraser University.

The graduation event celebrates not only the students’ hard work but recognizes the commitment and support of their communities. The program is a unique partnership across the Syilx Nation. Students travel from Vernon, Westbank, Osoyoos and Keremeos to attend in Penticton, a centralized location in the Syilx Nation so that members of many communities can attend.

“It’s like the Language House is building a big centralized fire and (after four years) when it burns down to coals we will see which coals are strong enough to start their own fires in other communities,” said student Xatma Sqilxw.

The program is supported by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Westbank First Nation, Simon Fraser University, Mitacs, and First Peoples Culture Council with core funding, and the Okanagan Indian Band, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Sensisyusten School and Outma Sqilxw Cultural School and School District 23 support employees to attend the program.

“It takes an incredible amount of dedication to put in 2,000 hours of study, and incredible support systems on behalf of their workplaces and families to make this space happen,” said Sʔimlaʔxw.

Students are learning cultural knowledge and traditional stories in immersion, following a complete Nsyilxcn curriculum developed by the Salish School of Spokane.

“When I first started working with them they were babies in the language. They have come a long way. Even in their personal growth. They’re more confident, more independent, nixw stəłtałt,” said Grouse Barnes, a fluent Elder from the Westbank First Nation.

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band also expressed his congratulations.

“I am very proud of all the students and staff of the Syilx Language House for their commitment to advancing and preserving our endangered language by completing the second year of the language program,” he said. “It has taken a lot of planning by the Language House and financial commitment from the bands involved to get half ways through the program.”

The graduation ceremony will be hosted at Westbank First Nation. It will be a fun evening for friends, family and supporters with language presentations and Nsyilxcn Karaoke.