Bringing Our Stories Back

“In the beginning there was Rain, SȽEMEW. Rain was a human being and taught people things. Each living thing once was a human being and shared special knowledge on how to live: the killer whale, the eagle, the salmon. These teachings, sacred words, were given to specific families to carry and protect on through the generations…”

-as told by STOLȻEȽ, John Elliott, in Terralingua interview

The project

These are the words of Saanich (W̱SÁNEĆ) elder and school teacher, STOLȻEȽ, John Elliott, as he begins to tell the story of his people’s ancestral way of life before many of their cultural traditions were silenced, in just a few generations, through a relentless process of colonization and assimilation. Boarding schools in which Saanich children were prohibited from speaking their own language, and in which their traditional ways were ridiculed. Missionaries who sought to undermine native spiritual beliefs and replace them with foreign ones. And government agents who dismantled traditional forms of governance and imposed alien rules and regulations. All this has taken its toll on the Saanich People, as it has on other Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. But it hasn’t succeeded in breaking the Saanich People’s spirit.

In 2011, Terralingua established a partnership with the Saanich (W̱SÁNEĆ) to support the initial stages of their W̱YELḴEN IST TŦE SX̱IÁM ȽTE “Bringing Our Stories Back” project. The project initially focused on the documentation of two traditional stories in their language, SENĆOŦEN, and the production of two illustrated storybooks, to be used as a part of a very active language revitalization program taking place at the Saanich Tribal School. A group of highly committed Saanich Language Apprentices worked on this project, transcribing and translating the text of the stories, and creating the beautiful artwork. The books are now going to print, and will be distributed in the school and in the community in both print and e-book format . The long-term goal of this project is to continue documenting and publishing Saanich traditional stories and traditional knowledge, in order to reconnect the people to their cultural heritage and their ancestral lands.

The Saanich People and their language: A story of loss and revival

The Saanich W̱SÁNEĆ 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 British Columbia (BC), Canada to the northern portion of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA, including the islands in between: the Gulf Islands (Canada) and the San Juan Islands (USA). They were true “Saltwater People”, leading an ocean-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” and gather around the fire to tell stories.

“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”, wrote the late David Elliott Sr., John Elliott’s father and a much respected elder who championed the revival of Saanich language and culture and devised the alphabet now in use to write SENĆOŦEN. Today, the Saanich People are divided into four bands: Pauquachin, Tsartlip, Tsawout, and Tseycum, living 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 the Straits Salish languages among the most critically endangered in North America. The language catalog Ethnologue classifies the languages as “extinct” or “nearly extinct”. And there is no underplaying the gravity of the situation. The Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages, published in 2010 by the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council, confirms this for BC indigenous languages in general. Most remaining fluent speakers are older adults, and many of them are passing away rapidly.

But beyond this sad story of loss lies a remarkable story of revival. 40 years ago, the Saanich People took over School Board 63 in the Saanich Peninsula, and began the indigenization of education for their children. Here is how it went, as described on the website of the LÁU,WEL,ṈEW̱ Tribal School.

Removing the invasive Scotch Broom on S,DÁ,YES (South Pender Island) on the reserve besides Poet’s Cove, British Columbia. Photo by Tye Swallow, 2011

“In the early 1960s, Dave Elliott became a custodian at the Tsartlip Indian Day School, attended by most of the Saanich children. Dave recognized the rapid decline in the use of SENĆOŦEN and the knowledge of the language and culture. The late Phillip Paul led an initiative to establish the Saanich Indian School Board. The SENĆOŦEN language was immediately offered as part of the curriculum of the band-operated school. Realizing that without a method of recording the language it would eventually be lost, Dave began to write down SENĆOŦEN words phonetically. He soon discovered that upon returning to read previously recorded words, he could not understand what he had written. Dave studied with a Victoria linguist, learning the International [Phonetic] Alphabet and other orthographies. The main difficulty with these systems was that some of the complex sounds of the SENĆOŦEN language required numerous symbols to be represented, resulting in long and complicated words. Dave decided to devise his own alphabet, using only one letter to denote each sound. He purchased a used typewriter for $30 and set out to make the SENĆOŦEN writing system accessible to his people. During the winter of 1978 the Dave Elliott SENĆOŦEN Alphabet was created. In 1984 the Saanich Indian School Board adopted the Dave Elliott Alphabet to help preserve the SENĆOŦEN language and history.”

The LÁU,WEL,ṈEW̱ Tribal School, which opened in 1989, takes its name from a nearby mountain that is sacred to the Saanich People. According to oral tradition, LÁU,WEL,ṈEW̱ is a spiritual place where the Saanich People found refuge after the Creator sent a great flood because the people had begun to forget the traditional teachings about caring for Mother Earth. At the school, John Elliott and his sister Lindy Elliott (ȻOSINIYE) carry on the work begun by their father. The school caters for students from preschool to Grade 9, by means of locally developed language and culture curriculum. Full-immersion “language nests” for 3-4-year-olds started in September 2011.

The beautiful school campus also hosts an Adult Education Center. The Center runs a successful Language Apprentice program for young adults who train to become the next SENĆOŦEN language teachers. And a program called FirstVoices, created by John Elliott and his then fellow teacher Peter Brand, now offers a sophisticated web-based archive for SENĆOŦEN and other languages from British Columbia and beyond. The archive is also accessible on iPads, and an audio-visual dictionary of SENĆOŦEN words and phrases can be downloaded from iTunes. These resources are widely used at the school.

But here remains a gap in the archive, and that’s stories and other forms of oral literature. There are various published collections of stories, as well as old audiotapes and other existing materials in the language. And there are the stories, songs, and historic accounts still stored in the minds of the remaining elders. All these urgently need to be gathered, documented, transcribed and translated. With Terralingua support, the Language Apprentices have started the process. We hope that this will be the seed of a long-term revival through which SENĆOŦEN oral literature will thrive again as the living heritage of the Saanich People.

Further Resources:

Terralingua Langscape, Volume 2, Issue 10 article page 30: Language stories of the SENĆOŦEN Language Apprentices. This article also contains illustrated excerpts from the work in progress.

Terralingua Langscape, Volume 2 Issue 7

Focus Magazine, December 2010, contains an article written on the Language Apprentices and the current status of BC Languages: Lost in Translation, by Katherine Gordon.

STOLȻEȽ, PENA and TOLISIYE, on Salt Spring Island. Photo © Terralingua, 2011

Story of the Bear and the Raven
One of two storybooks produced by the Saanich Language Apprentices with support from Terralingua’s Voices of the Earth. Available for Download here.

Saanich Elder and Knowledge Keeper John Elliott at a culture camp on the Tsawout Reserve, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo © Terralingua, 2011

Removing the invasive Scotch Broom on S,DÁ,YES (South Pender Island) on the reserve besides Poet’s Cove, British Columbia. Photo by Tye Swallow, 2011

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