New Snuneymuxw language hub dream recognized for Elders

The nation celebrated the opening of its new learning centre which will offer teachings around Hul’q’umi’num, plant medicine, employment training
Students in the language program sing as a choir and use gestures to help recall words in Hul’q’umi’num. Photo by Anna McKenzie

Snuneymuxw First Nation is celebrating the opening of a new culture-focused learning academy, culminating decades of work to preserve and reclaim the Hul’q’umi’num language on their unceded territory.

Hul’q’umi’num language students from across thi skwithe (Vancouver Island) their families, and witnesses gathered at the new Snuneymuxw Learning Academy (SLA) for an opening ceremony on July 21.

Language students represented nations that traditionally spoke the language, including Snuneymuxw, Spune’luxutth (Penelakut), Snaw-naw-as (Nanoose), and Stz’uminus. 

Snuneymuxw citizen and staff member with the Hul’q’umi’num Language & Culture Society, Thomas Jones, began by welcoming guests in attendance. 

“Doing this work and having this space: it’s momentous,” he said. “It was the dream of the Elders to be able to have a learning centre for the language.”

Jones says that when youth, children and adults have the desire to learn the language, they can seek it out at the SLA. Students can also engage with the language to earn high school credit as part of a new external credentials program announced by the “B.C.” government on June 30.

The new SLA represents a partnership between the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, the Hul’q’umi’num Language & Culture Society and Simon Fraser University (SFU). Aside from its focus on language learning, the SLA also offers programming around plant medicine as well as computer and employment training.

SFU works with Indigenous communities and organizations to offer its Indigenous language courses, and already works with the Hul’q’umi’num Language & Culture Society to offer courses out of a language house in “Duncan.”

The Snuneymuxw First Nation also has a partnership with Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools for a language immersion elementary school called Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh

Snuneymuxw First Nation member and student in the language program, Rachel Sampson, introduces herself in Hul’q’umi’num’ before performing a song. Photo by Anna McKenzie

Rachel Sampson, a citizen of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, performed a song at the event. She said it was outside of her comfort zone to perform, but that it left her feeling light afterwards.

“It was an amazing feeling to be able to do that,” she said.

Sampson, who also carries the name shiuqwtunuat, recently finished the Hul’q’umi’num language certificate and is working towards the diploma. She said learning about Indigenous plants led her to want to learn the language

The students who performed, of varying ages, began by introducing themselves, as well as identifying who their parents are, and the respective nations they belong to. Every student who spoke was embraced with support from the audience, as children ran around freely and laughter filled the gym at humorous moments during the performances. 

Elders and Knowledge Keepers sat in the front row, and were offered quarters as they witnessed prayer and the resurgence of a language almost lost. They sat up proudly as they witnessed younger generations work their way through the pronunciation of complex words. Photo by Anna McKenzie

Tsatassaya Tracey White, a recent graduate of the SFU certificate program and member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, said Indigenous people have a responsibility to reclaim and learn their ancestral languages.

“The importance of learning is manifold. Learning my Hul’qumi’num language is imperative in order to understand and weave together Coast Salish culture and the worldview of our ancestors,” she said. “Equally important is doing my part to help revitalize Indigenous languages for our future generations.” 

White portrayed lhqel’ts’ (the Moon) in a Hul’q’umin’um’ play that was performed at the opening — hw’ittsus Ihq’el’ts’ (Jealous Moon). She said acting is a great way to learn language.

“Performing a play in Hul’q’umin’um’ is a process. We had little time to prepare. At first you are memorizing the words, and then you realize you have to actually learn what you are saying,” she said. “With acting, there is an obvious exchange in communication with your fellow actors. You are compelled to listen and understand all of the lines in order to act and respond with your own lines.”

The play, which was written by diploma graduates Chris Alphonse and Ruby Peter, is a story about celestial beings, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. 

Many of the Hul’q’umi’num words came from legacy documents that were translated by Elders Peter and Delores Louise.

Snuneymuxw Chief Michael Wyse said the opening of the academy is a “profound milestone” for the nation and for Hul’q’umi’num learners. 

“SLA was created with an understanding that the ancient knowledge systems of our great lands can only be fully appreciated by first knowing and recognizing the relationship between language, land and culture,” he wrote in a letter to the community.

“The knowledge of the land expressed through Hul’q’umi’num is critical to maintaining the continuity of Indigenous knowledge systems.”

The academy is located at the former Woodbank Elementary School in “Nanaimo,” and the same building also houses a traditional medicine clinic.


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