As we mark the beginning of the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2032, we will be sharing stories from those learning, teaching and documenting their First Nations languages across B.C., like this story that demonstrates the importance of language in the home.
FPCC programs support language learners at all stages of their language fluency, from beginning through to becoming a fluent language teacher. Cheyenne Gwaamuuk is from Gitwangak and is a Gitsenimx Sim Algyax speaker using language in the home to support her daughter, Skiltuu, to be a future speaker and to increase language opportunities for others in her community.
Although this is challenging work in an environment where English is the dominant language, Cheyenne is determined to share what she has learned so that future generations have fluent speakers to keep the language alive.
“Am sa gootxw’y aa” (my idea is good, hey?) is a phrase that four-year-old Skiltuu likes to say in Gitsenimx. Her mother, Cheyenne, has been talking to her in their language since before she was born. As a fluent speaker, Cheyenne has been intentionally planting the seeds of the language in her daughter and community.
Gitsenimx is spoken in the northeast region of B.C. around the town of Hazelton. As of the 2018 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages, there were 513 fluent speakers, about 5.3% of the population at that time. This is a percentage that Cheyenne is working to increase.
Wilaayin hl algyx̱’m aa? (Do you understand our language?)
Cheyenne discovered FPCC’s online language tool FirstVoices.com at age 16 when she began to explore words and phrases on the Gitsenimx language page.
“I started to take an interest and find little phrases we could use as a family in our home,” says Cheyenne. “And then an opportunity opened up when I was residing in Vancouver at a once-a-week community drop-in class.”
At her class, Cheyenne connected with the course instructor Barbara Sennott, Xsim Mihl Mihl from the House of Geel. The course sparked an interest in taking her language learning further, which led to a Master of Arts degree in Indigenous Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria and participation in FPCC’s Mentor-Apprentice Program with Barbara as her mentor.
“Even though I was learning, my proficiency as a speaker was not yet increasing until I accessed the Mentor-Apprentice Program. I was really able to take all the work I did [at UVic] as a language learner and roll it into a language-speaking program,” says Cheyenne. “When I felt like I was getting stuck in my learning and what I could do with my language in Vancouver, I moved home and my proficiency increased again.”
Si wilaksa’ (To teach/to help the learning process)
Cheyenne returned to Hazelton, gave birth to Skiltuu and as a new parent, decided to open a childcare centre (with language immersion as a core element) through an FPCC-funded pre-school language nest.
“When we opened our language nest, this was the difference for increasing my proficiency and my daughter’s,” says Cheyenne. “Just being able to interact with other speakers a few times a week, and even just listening to them speak – it was that higher-level conversation that we were able to chime into.”
When COVID-19 hit, the extended period of isolation gave Cheyenne a huge opportunity to fully immerse her daughter in the language.
“Her first two years, her language learning was really good,” says Cheyenne. “We really tried to isolate her from other English language speakers to the point where Gitsenimx was her dominant language. It was really amazing for her language.”
Now that things are opening up again and Cheyenne and her daughter are seeing more people in person in a largely English-speaking world, Cheyenne is finding it challenging to keep Gitsenimx as Skiltuu’s main language. To keep the momentum going, she plans to home-school her daughter for as long as possible so they can keep working on their language skills in the home.
The need for language revitalization throughout the community has been an important realization for Cheyenne. When she managed the language nest, for example, she noticed that kids were able to pick up the language quite quickly. However, if their parents or friends were not fluent enough to speak the language in the home, the children did not become speakers in the long term.
“Previously, we have focused a lot on children, zero to three, zero to five years old and elementary school strategies,” says Cheyenne. “But language learning happens in the home, so I think adult immersion programming will really support that language in the home strategy for young parents who want to learn the language.”
Amhl jebin (The work is good/what you have made is good)
In B.C., younger language speakers like Cheyenne are feeling the urgency to develop more fluent speakers because many fluent speakers are aging. Cheyenne is doing everything she can to support fluency in her community as a language teacher and in her current role as an FPCC Mentor-Apprentice Coach supporting new teams in the program.
We raise our hands to Cheyenne and the work she is doing to pass along Gitsenimx to Skiltuu. FPCC is honoured to have the opportunity to support Cheyenne and others through their language journey and development. It is beautiful and inspiring to hear Cheyenne speak in her language and to see what is possible when children are fully immersed.
The future of Indigenous languages lives with the little ones who will be the next generation of speakers. As we begin IDIL 2022–2032, we look forward to sharing more stories that celebrate language revitalization work in B.C. Click here to learn more about IDIL 2022-2032.
About the International Decade for Indigenous Languages (IDIL) 2022–2032
About the FPCC Mentor-Apprentice Program
About FPCC Language Nests
FPCC resource Language for Life: Nourishing Indigenous Languages in the Home
Gitsenimx words provided by the Gitsenimx FirstVoices site.
The FPCC Mentor-Apprentice Program and Language Nests are supported by the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation with additional support for MAP from Aboriginal Neighbours.
Share Your Story!
Do you have a story about the work your community is doing to revitalize First Nations languages in B.C. or events you are planning to acknowledge IDIL 2022–2032? We want to hear from you! Please send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org and check back as we post more stories about the good work being done across the province.
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