With fewer than 100 fluent elders remaining, a program to revitalize an endangered language has started in the South Okanagan.
“In our Comprehensive Community Plan, language and healing were our top priorities,” said Chief Jonathan Kruger of the Penticton Indian Band. “Chief Clarence Louie challenged all the Chiefs to do more language. Our council heard Paul Creek was the best model and language houses were having success. We wanted to bring it here.”
Organizers said Nsyilxcn (Okanagan language), like most Indigenous languages, is critically endangered with no new speakers created in Canada in over 60 years.
Penticton Indian Band was the first to invest core funding and to provide a classroom location at the Footprints building, followed by support from Osoyoos Indian Band and Westbank First Nation. Each band sponsored employees to attend two days a week for four years and provided core funding.
“Our language is deeply connected to who we are and to the health and well-being of our communities,” said Michele Johnson, lead teacher of the group who launched the collaboration between the bands leading with the words kn kł sqiʔs – I have a dream.
The Syilx Language House Association is a vision Johnson has been working towards for six years. She began by completing her PhD in language revitalization at UBC-Okanagan and found her answers with the Paul Creek curriculum, cleverly designed so beginners can learn while teaching.
“We are so lucky to have this; it gives us the opportunity to raise each other up,” she said of the six cutting-edge textbooks co-written in Keremeos by Chris Parkin, LaRae Wiley and Sarah Peterson. “There are several young people in each community that are passionate about learning language—that are taking it on as a role and responsibility to their communities.”
Syilx community members and Elders stress that language and culture are of paramount importance. After four years, Johnson promises intermediate speakers. The program has thirteen beginners, five co-teachers (also students), and four Elders from across the Syilx territory, Penticton, Osoyoos, Keremeos, Westbank, Vernon, and the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“It really is the first time we have attempted to create new Nsyilxcn speakers—research shows that it takes 2,000 hours of study to create a high-intermediate speaker,” said Johnson.
Over the course of the program, Johnson and her staff will also record Elders, publish language books and CDs, and host open-house community events. Johnson would like to express gratitude to supporters and partners, including Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Okanagan Indian Band, First Peoples Cultural Council, Land Strategies, Columbia Power and Simon Fraser University.
The association is fundraising for next year’s operating budget and welcomes community visits, donations and volunteers from the community. Further details and contact information are available on the Association’s website: www.thelanguagehouse.ca.