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Syilx Elders work to preserve language with new book

The Syilx Language House will release its 9th book of Elder recordings at a book launch Dec. 1
Fluent Elders in IX. Top row left to right: K̓ninm̓tm̓ taʔ n̓q̓ʷic̓tn̓s Grouse Barnes, Kʷuxástminaʔ Victor Antoine, Qʷəl̓mnalqs Theresa Terbasket. Bottom row left to right: Q̓iyusálxqn Herman Edward, Čwy̓ləx Thomas Pierre. (Syilx Language House photo)

An effort to preserve the language of the Syilx people has reached its ninth chapter.

On Dec. 1, Syilx Language House will release its ninth book of Elder recordings, Elders 9, or in their language, iʔ ƛ̓x̌əx̌ƛ̓x̌aptət 9. Each year, fluent Elders publish recorded and transcribed stories in full n̓syilxčn̓/n̓səlxčin̓ (the Syilx language) for the benefit of advanced language learners.

People are invited to take part in a historic book launch at Okanagan College Friday, Dec. 1, from 5-8 p.m., celebrating the fluent Elders and N̓syilxčn̓ stories, Syilx Language House learners and staff. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the event starts at 6 p.m. with light refreshments on offer.

The book launch is a chance to meet the storytellers working to preserve their language. Adam Gregoire (C̓alúpaʔ) of the Okanagan Indian Band, Victor Antoine (Kʷuxástminaʔ) also of the OKIB, Grouse Barnes (K̓ninm̓tm̓ taʔ n̓q̓ʷic̓tn̓s) of Westbank First Nation, Herman Edward (Q̓iyusálxqn) of Lower Similkameen Indian Band, LSIB’s Theresa Terbasket (Qʷəl̓mnalqs), Thomas Pierre (Čwy̓ləx) of the Penticton Indian Band, and the late Andrew McGinnis (twiʔ Kiʔláw̓naʔ) all share recorded stories.

The Syilx Elders model humility and the spirit of collaboration. Antoine, a fluent Elder, specifically wanted other Elders and writers to know that he “doesn’t consider himself to be the last word. If they know a better word or translation to let him know.”

The Syilx language, n̓syilxčn̓/n̓səlxčin̓, is spoken within the Okanagan Nation Alliance which includes southern B.C. and northern Washington. It is spoken by Syilx Okanagan and Sinixt Nation members.

“The language connects us to the land and to each other as speakers, and is healing to us as people,” says Michele Johnson, executive director of Syilx Language House.

Indigenous languages throughout North America are in a critical state of endangerment, and the Syilx language is no exception. There are fewer than 40 fluent Elders remaining.

But there is value to maintaining these languages; students and teachers have found intensive study of their language, stories and way of being to be transformational, uplifting, and healing, reporting that these cultural entities fill a piece of themselves they often didn’t know was missing.

The Syilx Language House creates new speakers, trains learners to record and transcribe fluent Elders, and shares recordings with the learning community. Sqawaʔłlwút Alexis Tonasket, based near Spokane, says of the program, “we’ve been studying hard and we have excellent, very capable teachers and peers holding each other up.”

Currently at Syilx Language House, 30 “language warriors,” including five teachers, meet daily on Zoom for full-time language study, including transcription practice. Each year they accomplish 440 hours of a sequenced, proven fluency transfer system created by the Salish School of Spokane, and publish 30 hours of recordings. The program serves people across the n̓syilxčn̓/n̓səlxčin̓ speaking territory.

“I can’t believe it is our ninth book of Elder recordings. When I started recording in 2015 I had no idea Syilx Language House would evolve to publish 30 hours of recordings each year. I am proud of this team and the fluent Elders for their their dedication to sharing their work,” said Johnson.

The Elder Books are shared each year. Elders 1-9 can be found in your local library, the OC library and the UBCO library.

Because the language is endangered, the Syilx Language House focuses the majority of its energy on creating full, deep fluency for the members of its community and recording the fluent Elders. It offers occasional evening lessons for the wider community.

Follow Syilx Language House on Facebook to find out about online events to attend.

“Everyone in the n̓syilxčn̓/n̓səlxčin̓ speaking territory should learn at least 10 words of the language,” says Johnson, and backs it up with an offer to teach them. Contact Syilx Language House if your organization would like to learn 10 words at

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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