Penticton Indian Band works to preserve language

For thousands of years the Syilx language has been the brush strokes painting images of life for Okanagan First Nations people.

Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School instructor Toni Gallicano-George helps Karlie Skookum (left) and Menia Wilson with their English literacy work during class. Over the past year the school has been focussed on improving literacy and numeracy skills of its students

Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School instructor Toni Gallicano-George helps Karlie Skookum (left) and Menia Wilson with their English literacy work during class. Over the past year the school has been focussed on improving literacy and numeracy skills of its students

For thousands of years, the Syilx language has been the brush strokes painting images of life for Okanagan First Nations people.

From the whispering winds in the tree tops to the babbling brooks, those words vividly told the stories of the hunters and gathers who lived on and from the land.

Not written down, the language was instead passed along to new generations through legend and song.

But over the last few centuries, the language has been forcibly taken away and otherwise disappearing.

To prevent further erosion, there is currently a concerted effort to bring it back.

One of those people doing this is Arnie Baptiste of the Penticton Indian Band, head of the Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School cultural language department.

He was fortunate to be immersed in the language and heritage of the Okanagan Nation while growing up.

His personal goal and passion is to now give that to the children he works with every day.

“Sitting in a room full of young people, the thought is overwhelming that we’re on the verge of losing that language,” he said while waiting for class to begin. “Something so ancient, it would be so devastating not to remember, the birds, the fish, the human beings, our relatives. It is a heavy weight on our shoulders how few of us speak it fluently.

“Our language, it ties directly to our soul, our being, our breath our existence and it is what links us to the creator. It is what links us to life. It instills in us we are Okanagan people.”

Baptiste chuckles as he tries to explain his native language in what, to him, is a foreign tongue.

“It’s kind of difficult you understand,” he said with the familiar wry look and ever-present twinkle in his eyes. “If you are a person who understands the language and listens to someone who speaks the language it is very much like watching a movie that strikes your heart or a cartoon that makes you laugh, it is vivid and colourful.  It’s not the words we see in our minds but the pictures these words create and paint for us.”

The word Syilx itself means the process of making many into one much like using a stranded fibre to create a single piece of material or object.

In its broadest perspective, the language has a universal application to everything in life from hunting and fishing to growing and gathering.

“We understand that the words that we use actually came to earth before we human beings, so the language is older than us,” said Baptiste, who is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Okanagan band conference. “Something that old and that beautiful and that strong is that important.

He added the language goes much deeper than just communication and losing that would be debilitating to not only the individual but the souls of his people.

“It is the breath we take. It is the love we share,” said Baptiste. “We believe our language transcends life in both this place we call the living land and in the place we will go when we are done here and we cannot allow that
to happen (the loss of the language).”

Language is Our Breath

In an effort to preserve culture, heritage and the spoken word of the Syilx, Outma Sqilx’w School is hosting the Okanagan Band School Conference Feb. 18-19.

Language is Our Breath is a series of workshops and presentations for teachers, parents, learners and leaders with the intent of inspiring and helping the professional growth in those who are responsible for the education of First Nations students.

“I’ve worked at other public schools in the South Okanagan and we lost a lot of (First Nations) kids who dropped out,” said Outma school principal Phil Rathjen. “There was kind of a struggle in terms of their own identity, just an insecurity. Coming into the public system they didn’t have a strong sense of pride, so here they’re getting exposure to their cultural heritage and developing a sense of pride and a sense of confidence in it.”

He believes cultural schools like Outma have a dual responsibility to young people in both providing a solid educational base along with a critical cultural component.

With grades kindergarten to 8 and nearly 100 students, Rathjen recognized early on the need at Outma for increased focus on reading
and numeracy.

“We identified 24 kids who were struggling and we ran a summer reading camp last year,” he said. “It involved students, staff and parents and when the kids came back in September they were far above where they were and now we’re well above the national average.”

With that in place, he feels the cultural aspect will have that much more value.

“What’s interesting about the Okanagan language that I’ve come to know is that it is very tied to the land, the kids are tied to a living calendar, around the seasons and growth. This conference is about the delivery of language and the revitalization of language. The language is the breath of the culture.”

Special guest speakers at the conference will include Jeannette Armstrong, director of the En’owkin Centre, a cultural and educational facility, and co-founder of the En’owkin School of International Writing.

Arnie Baptiste and Kathryn Michel, both specialists and educators in their native language, are also scheduled to give keynote
addresses.