Through the pandemic as many of us were isolated in our homes, I would sit in my backyard with my laptop, overlooking t’ucin (Skaha Lake), and learn nsyilxcən.
Regardless of what was going on, me and a small cohort of other online learners committed to gathering virtually four days a week, three hours a day, for an entire year to get closer to our ancestral language.
The virtual fluency cohort under the Syilx Language House from April 2021 to April 2022 was meant to continue crucial language revitalization work that was already happening before COVID-19.
Now that we are finished with the program, I spoke to some of my classmates and colleagues to reflect about our collective year-long experience with being immersed in nsyilxcən. Program director Sʔím̓laʔxʷ reflects on the successes of online learning for our cohort, which was an experiment when it first began.
“As far as I know we were the first nsyilxcən to adopt Zoom,” she says.
“[When] COVID-19 hit two years ago, we found out that we couldn’t gather for the class, but we all needed the medicine of the class … so we rescheduled on Zoom, and everyone showed up, which is amazing.”
Being a graduate student studying and working physically away from the syilx Okanagan Nation, I was able to commit to these classes from wherever I was. Throughout the year, we had students call in from all over the U.S. including California, Hawai’i, Utah, Alaska, and from several reserve communities within our nation.
For some of us, pandemic interruptions actually gave us more flexibility to study and learn to speak nsyilxcən. Remote language learning is an incredible tool that can bring us home from far away. We should always make space for those sqilxʷ who are not within their homelands to study their language.
“I think it was really special for me, because growing up I heard my grandma speaking this language, and I just think it’s really cool,” says language warrior Łilat, who was part of our cohort. “She’s not here anymore but I am just thinking how proud she would be of me.”
Many, but not all, of our language learning cohort have memories of hearing our Elders, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and non-binary relatives speaking nsyilxcən. We just didn’t have the right formula to progress our language before coming together to learn.
I grew up with k’lp’xwínaʔ — holes in my ears — a phase of language acquisition embedded within our nsyilxcən language. I was gifted the phonemes of my ancestral languages by my grandmother. She spoke Secwepemctsín commands to me when I was young, and we still use those commands commonly in my family — now my four-year-old nephew is taking them on. Secwepemctsín is a distinct neighbouring language to nsyilxcen that shares many phonemes and concepts with nsyilxcen. Many of us have multiple languages from within our genealogies to breathe life back into.
I recall a conversation from years ago, when I longed to study the nsyilxcən language but hadn’t had the right opportunity yet.
“They call our language sleeping,” a relative had said to me.
The contrast between how our languages are categorized by linguists as disappearing and the Indigenous passion to bring them back to life is an emotional whirlwind. For many of us, we refuse to let our tongue be called sleeping or extinct so we do the best we can to speak.
Sʔím̓laʔxʷ states that there are “about two dozen fluent speakers remaining” of nsyilxcən throughout the syilx Okanagan Nation inclusing both sides of the 49th Parallel. Although, statistically speaking this number varies across online records, she affirms, “when you talk to fluent speakers that is a number they agree with.”
Building fluency in a digital language nest
When we first began our language learning cohort in April 2021, I watched from behind my screen as a mother robin built her nest. In front of me were blocks of new faces, all trying to learn a new language together — the energy felt busy and flustered, much like the robin who was working in the background.
By the time that robin had hatchlings, she knew all of the spots around the yard to pick up worms and critters of all types. She could do it in a matter of seconds. As I was still often at a loss when trying to seek the right words in nsyilxcən, I still felt that much like her, we were all picking up concepts and lessons from the depths of our genealogies. The gifts of language learning are compounding. We get to sit with these ideas, sometimes within our own homelands and witness them encompass us.
“It makes me feel closer to my family and closer to the culture,” Łilat reflects. “The language has definitely taught me a lot more than I was expecting. Even the words that we use for the fish that we hunt, and the berries we gather; I didn’t really know any of that before so I think that is a huge part of it just learning more about my culture”
Throughout the entirety of our first lesson, we didn’t get to see the written words when we spoke them. nsyilxcən was always an oral language, until recently. Many language warriors before us have created many tools for us to learn today. When I was young the nsyilxcən I saw was spelled with great variety, much like I heard it spoken.
The fluency between the forms and structures of our ecologies, and the grammar of our languages is both astonishing and endlessly grounding. When I learn our plant medicines now, the first words to enter my psyche are nsyilxcən words. These are existing relationships, the kind that have evolved over deep timescales — the kind that makes me even question why I am writing in English right now.
Language awakening community
“I would say more than anything I have ever done in my life [the language] has gifted me a relationship with my family and my community,” shares language warrior Sqʷaytal̓qs. “I didn’t really know my grandpa well, [but] because I started speaking the language, I had an excuse to go spend time with him that took away some of the fear … and now I have a relationship with him where I am actually helping him write his memoirs. I didn’t even really know him a year ago and now we spend so much time together.”
In the early phases of our cohort coalescing, once we laid down the foundations for our own relationships and flow, we needed each other more than ever when the news of the 215 unmarked graves of our own lineages was affirmed.
We held each other through these difficult times. I remember how the tears looked on my old scratchy metallic laptop. When your tongue starts to remember how to project ancestral phonemes again you can feel the depth of that connection between your mind and your throat. I remember everyone starting to speak with their own accents. I remember how it felt to hear those genealogies that connect us, but also make us distinctly come together through our language.
When my family ran from “Vernon” to “Kamloops” to honour our relatives lost to those harmful institutions known as residential “schools” my language was spilling out of my head. I was almost speaking nonsense, moving around like a young child just learning to speak. Repeating phrases, sounds, words – it didn’t matter what was coming out – I was really happy to hear myself speak. When we arrived at the school, which two of my grandparents were survivors of, those words nestled together in my spʔus — the medicine was just remembering.
Our language can be remembered if we breathe life into it. Like Fox: there was a ceremony, an internal sumíx, and an action that brought his brother Coyote back to his feet; we weren’t sure if he had died, or was sleeping, but he still awoke.
Sqʷaytal̓qs also remembers the process of speech awakening inside of her, “just the sounds that don’t exist in English and knowing that my mouth makes them naturally now when … it used to be so hard to do ł, ƛ̓, or q̓,” she says.
“The first couple of weeks I had to have a glass of water all the time because my throat was constantly sore from trying to practice the x̌ and q̓ and now its like bam [easily pronounceable].”
She remembered to be patient with herself through this process, while also feeling a sense of decolonial liberation from the inside.
“I worked hard to make the sounds properly, you are never 100 per cent going to sound absolutely correct when you come from being a native speaker in one language and a language learner in another language,” she says.
“I will never be a native speaker in nsyilxcən — but I was able to teach myself how to make these sounds … it feels good in the body.”
For each lesson we completed, we celebrated with oral presentations. We invited our families, friends, supporters, and whoever would listen to us to join our Zoom call and hear us speak. We would talk about ourselves, our land, our stories, and our way of life — that’s how we were learning how to carry nsyilxcən.
Healing through speaking
“It has done a lot of healing in terms of decolonizing my heart and my mind,” Sqʷaytal̓qs shares.
“I would say that’s how it has been medicine for me. A lot of the reason I didn’t have a relationship with my community and with my family had a lot to do with internalized colonialism and the fear that comes with that, and the anxiety that comes along with that.
“Because [the language] has been able to teach me about how I am and where I am and give me interactions with my community it has healed a lot of that internalized colonialism in me. That is definitely one of the ways it has been medicine for me.”
The journey of language learning has brought each of us a lot of healing, joy, and medicine alongside a healthy amount of grief, frustration, and sadness of what the colonial structures sought to take away. Our language journeys have brought us together on a shared path that will be lifelong for many of us. While the gift of language has also inspired many other aspects of our lives to flourish. As a student cohort, we encourage new learners to take that next step, whatever it may look like for you.
In many ways, we are all language learners working on our own timescales. If you have an Indigenous language that is threatened, this is a call in to take that next step.
“I definitely feel a lot happier, a lot of people said in class that language was their medicine and is part of their healing and I definitely feel that too,” says Łilat.
“I hope more people want to learn the language and we can continue to keep making spaces for new learners.”