The first of 12 educational signs promoting the nsyilxcən language has been unveiled at a BGC Okanagan location in kiʔláwnaʔ (Kelowna) — part of an initiative being spearheaded by the Syilx Language House.
Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson, the executive director of the Syilx Language House, said she reached out to BGC Okanagan more than a year ago to ask if they were interested in nsyilxcən signs outside of their 12 main locations.
Johnson also organized a beginners nsyilxcen language course for early childhood educators who are working with BGC.
Johnson said that she feels really good to see the sign planted in the ground, noting that the Syilx Language House is “spreading the language as far and wide as we can.”
“We believe that creating fluent speakers in this generation is really important. For us to have good medicine around us so that we can become fluent speakers in this generation is really important,” she said.
“So having more people know about the language, feel positive and passionate about the language, it helps us in our mission to create fluency.”
The nsyilxcən sign at BGC Okanagan’s headquarters in kiʔláwnaʔ is divided into two parts: on the left hand side, there 10 beginner words and a handful of phrases in nsyilxcən with the English translation.
The right side of the sign features more advanced nsyilxcən text that introduces the history of the syilx people, which is an excerpt from the Salish School of Spokane’s N̓syilxčn̓ 3 textbook.
“We thought it was very pertinent because the sign is about the nsyilxcen language, and the nsyilxcen language unifies us as a people,” said Johnson.
The sign has QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone that provides audio recordings of the pronunciations of the nsyilxcən words and text featured. The audio for the left-hand side was recorded by Johnson, while the audio for the contents on the right side of the sign was recorded by twiʔ (the late) Sʕamtíc̓aʔ Sarah Peterson.
“Sʕamtíc̓aʔ is responsible for thousands of audio recordings, and she just passed a year and a half ago,” said Johnson. “It was a devastating loss to our language community, but it’s still very heartwarming to be able to click the QR code and you can still hear Sʕamtíc̓aʔ’s voice.”
The left hand side of the sign features 10 beginner words and a handful of phrases, such as siwɬkʷ (water), snəqsilxʷ (family) and lim̕ lm̕t iʔ (“Thank you for the”).
Johnson said that purpose of grouping the beginner words with lim̕ lm̕t iʔ was to allow teachers and youth to express their gratitude, whether it be for the land, the water or for their families.
“So it’s a bit like a prayer for the language, for anyone who wants to make a prayer,” she said.
nsyilxcən, the language spoken by syilx people, is “critically ‘endangered,’” according to the Syilx Language House. There are fewer than 40 fluent Elders with only a few handfuls of intermediate-advanced speakers.
The unveiling of the nsyilxcən sign outside of BGC Okanagan kiʔláwnaʔ location began with a prayer and opening remarks from K̓ninm̓tm̓ taʔ n̓q̓ʷic̓tn̓s Wilfred “Grouse” Barnes, a syilx Elder and knowledge keeper from Westbank First Nation.
BGC staff and Johnson made remarks during the sign’s revealing event, which concluded with a drum song by nistasi Marnie Gregoire of Okanagan Indian Band.
Becky Kirkham, the early years manager for BGC Okanagan, said putting up the signs is something tangible the organization can do to educate about local syilx culture.
“There’s learning here for us as an organization and for me personally, but it goes beyond hundreds and hundreds of participants that we work with,” said Kirkham.
“Being able to bring it into our program is really amazing.”