Breathing life into Halq’eméylem

Breathing life into Halq’eméylem

Seabird Island hosts students from across Fraser Valley for yearly translation contest

The Seabird Island band gymnasium was full of excited chatter and youthful energy last Thursday when nearly 140 students from Sts’ailes, Squiala and Seabird school districts came together to show off their language skills and learn even more words in the Upriver dialect of the Halq’eméylem language.

But the event, which saw 23 teams competing in different themed tents around the gym, had more significance than a simple competition. The Halq’eméylem Translation Contest is in its fifth year, and does important work for a language that is integral to the culture and identity of Coast Salish people across the Valley.

“I tell people, ‘Our language is suffocating and we’re here to give breath to [it],’ ”said Dianna Kay, Seabird Island language development/Halq’eméylem instructor. “There are so few speakers and we don’t use it very much. But if they understand the language, they can understand the land.”

While the number of speakers is growing – Thursday’s contest started with a welcoming to four new language teachers for schools across the valley – there are only five known fluent speakers of the Upriver Halq’eméylem dialect left and all are over 70 years old.

There are plenty of reasons the language has come so close to extinction, including the damaging impacts of colonization, residential schools, the ’60s scoop, the Indian Act and general efforts to eradicate the language and similarly, the culture, of First Nations people in B.C. and across Canada.

There may even be dormant speakers that are unknown, said Kay, but years of oppression have kept them silent.

As a language curriculum developer, Kay works directly with developing resources and policy around Halq’eméylem. She works tirelessly to implement the language across all Seabird Community School programming, even if it’s just introduction phrases or identification of nouns.

“At our school, we’ve been teaching the language to our children since its opening in 1976 on … I call it ‘planting seeds in the students,’ so they can develop the language on their own,” Kay said.

Seabird has had evening programs and college courses in Halq’eméylem too, and provides resources to neighbouring communities “to keep our languages as global and accessible as possible,” Kay said. “It’s really exciting because Seabird is really progressive that way.”

For Kay, learning Halq’eméylem words was essential in understanding who she was and where she came from.

“I understood being Stó:lo, but I never really understood being Stó:lo until I started [learning] the language, and things just made sense,” she said. “Place names, stories, the songs … it’s all integrated in the dictionary. You can really understand who we are as Stó:lo people and our connection to the land if you understand the language.

“Even our ceremonies – why we do this and why we do that and the intricacies of all of it. It’s all in the language. It’s all there.”

Colour-coded grammar tiles help students put together sentences and phrases in Halq’eméylem. For the fifth year of the contest, students worked with the theme “introducing our friend.” (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

While participants in Thursday’s contest got to show off the words and phrases the students already knew, it was also a chance for them to learn. The students learned 15 new Halq’eméylem words that allow them to make over 210 statements. This year’s theme was “introducing our friend.”

Participants had to start with a greeting, introduce their name and grade, and introduce a friend with one of their interests.

For example, “El stl’l kw’ as telex el siyaya_______” in English means, “I would like you to meet my friend _____.” And “Eystexwes tútl’ò/thútl’ò tehelme’a:ls” means, “He/she likes to play soccer.”

The contest accounts for varying intensities of language programs across the Valley. Some students may have access to full Halq’eméylem courses, while others may get one workshop a year.

Either way, Kay is hopeful that the students will not only learn new words, but will develop a stronger connection to their land and culture through the Halq’eméylem language.


Students of all ages from across the Valley participated in the contest April 26. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Students of all ages from across the Valley participated in the contest April 26. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)