“Our people lived as part of everything. We were so much a part of nature, we were just like the birds, the animals, the fish. We were like the mountains. Our people lived that way.”
—The late W̱SÁNEĆ Elder David Elliott Sr.
The W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) First Nation has lived since time immemorial along the Pacific coast of North America, in an area straddling the border between the current Province of British Columbia (BC), Canada and Washington State (WA), USA. They are a Northern Straits Salish people, whose language, SENĆOŦEN, belongs to the Salishan language family.
Their traditional territory extended from the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island in BC to the northern portion of the Olympic Peninsula in WA, including the islands in between: the Gulf Islands (Canada) and the San Juan Islands (USA). They were “saltwater people,” leading a sea-centered way of life. From spring to fall, they moved around their territory on their sea-faring canoes, living off the bounty of land and sea. Winter was the time to “put the paddles away,” settle in their winter villages, and gather around the fire to tell stories.
That was until, in just a few generations, their ancestral way of life was disrupted and many of their cultural traditions were silenced by a relentless process of European colonization and assimilation. That process started with exploration and trading, especially since the mid-1700s, and culminated with the establishment of a British colony in the mid-1800s.
As with so many other Indigenous Peoples, the W̱SÁNEĆ were dispossessed of their lands. Their children were taken forcibly from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were abused and forbidden from speaking their own language and practicing their own cultural traditions. Missionaries sought to undermine W̱SÁNEĆ spiritual beliefs and replace them with foreign ones. And government agents dismantled W̱SÁNEĆ ancestral laws and traditional forms of governance, imposing colonial political structures and laws instead.
All this took a heavy toll on the W̱SÁNEĆ. Today, divided into four bands (Pauquachin, Tsartlip, Tsawout, and Tseycum), they live in four small reserves by the same names, located at the sites of their traditional winter villages on the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula on southeastern Vancouver Island. Linguists place SENĆOŦEN and other Straits Salish languages among the most critically endangered languages in North America. Most remaining fluent speakers are older adults, and many of them are passing away rapidly.
But behind this history of harsh adversity and loss lies a remarkable story of resilience and revival. The W̱SÁNEĆ spirit was never vanquished. Then, in the early 1960s, the late W̱SÁNEĆ Elder Dave Elliott Sr. became aware of the rapid decline in the use of SENĆOŦEN and in the knowledge of the language and culture. He set out to develop his own alphabet to write down the language — an alphabet that is now officially in use to write SENĆOŦEN — and became a champion of W̱SÁNEĆ language and culture preservation and revitalization.
Later on, in the 1980s, the W̱SÁNEĆ took over the local School Board and began the indigenization of education for their children. The ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School now offers primary and secondary education with its own language and culture curriculum, and has established full-immersion “language nests” for kindergarten-aged children. The school also hosts an Adult Education Center, which runs a successful Language Apprentice program for young adults who train to become the next SENĆOŦEN language teachers.
With the hard work of exceptionally dedicated teachers, such as Elder STOLȻEȽ (John Elliott, Dave Elliott Sr.’s son), as well as of several cohorts of Language Apprentices, the W̱SÁNEĆ have made great strides in reclaiming their language and culture. But there’s much more to be done to close the wide cultural gap opened by colonization and assimilation. Stories, myths, legends, songs, and other oral traditions, filled as they are not only with traditional knowledge but also with moral and spiritual wisdom, have a crucial role to play in that process.
For that purpose, in 2011 W̱SÁNEĆ teachers and Language Apprentices started a project they called W̱YELḴEN IST TŦE SX̱IÁM ȽTE (“Bringing Our Stories Back”). They aimed to gather, transcribe, and disseminate this oral literature — sourced both from old written or audio records and directly from the mouths of the remaining elders — with a long-term goal to reconnect people to their language, cultural heritage, and ancestral lands.
A partnership with Terralingua allowed a group of highly committed Language Apprentices to transcribe and translate the text of four traditional stories, and to turn them into four printed storybooks, beautifully illustrated with their own artwork. The books were distributed in the school and in the community, becoming part of ongoing language and culture revitalization efforts both at school and in the home. One of these books, The Bear and the Raven, is available here for download, with W̱SÁNEĆ permission.
Working with the old stories was also a revealing experience for the Language Apprentices themselves. One of them, MENEŦIYE (Elisha Elliott), commented: “[Doing] these projects has opened my eyes to many more possibilities surrounding these old recordings that need to be transcribed. … Since all of the stories are land-based, it would bring us back to the connection to the land and how our history here goes back so far.”
Our partnership with the W̱SÁNEĆ Tribal School and the Language Apprentices has continued since. In 2013, Terralingua contributed to the realization of a historic visioning retreat and language “boot camp” that Language Apprentices and Elders held on Salt Spring Island, BC (which forms part of W̱SÁNEĆ traditional territory and is the site of a small W̱SÁNEĆ Reserve).
The Apprentices’ goals were to envision the future of the language revitalization program and to carry out their first-ever total language immersion event: a full day of speaking exclusively in their mother tongue. That event was later described as “monumental,” in that it had been decades or even generations since that many people had only used SENĆOŦEN to communicate for a whole day. Putting up with each other’s mistakes and mix-ups with plenty of patience and humor, participants felt that this retreat was a turning point for the future of the language.
Later, in 2016, we responded to the interest expressed by both the W̱SÁNEĆ and the Tsilhqot’in (the other BC First Nation with whom we have worked – see Tsilhqot’in page) in having video training for youth. The idea was to create opportunities for young people to reconnect with their linguistic and cultural heritage through contemporary media, by equipping them with video recording skills they could use for language and culture documentation, such as interviewing elders, recording stories and cultural events or activities, and so forth. We decided to organize a joint workshop for both W̱SÁNEĆ and Tsilhqot’in youth, with the intent to also provide for a peer-to-peer cultural exchange between the two communities.
For this project, Terralingua teamed up with sister organization The Cultural Conservancy (TCC), which made available an expert video training team. Five W̱SÁNEĆ and five Tsilhqot’in youth, with elders from each community, came together on the W̱SÁNEĆ school campus in Brentwood Bay, BC for a four-day intensive training workshop on cultural storytelling through video, including methods and techniques relevant to language and culture revitalization and hands-on experience in field settings. TCC facilitators ensured that each participant would get first-hand practice and fostered rapport between the two groups of youth. The workshop was complemented by a visit to W̱SÁNEĆ and Tsilhqot’in artifacts at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, and concluded with a traditional feast.
Following the workshop, the W̱SÁNEĆ trainees began to focus on using video to record traditional ceremonies and other occasions in which their language is used, and on the production of short videos for an online language-learning curriculum to be used by parents and children in the home.
Below you’ll find some relevant resources. And watch this space! We’re putting together a photo gallery of the video training project, to be posted here soon.