Squamish Voices

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Oct 13 16:31:26 UTC 2003

Keeping a voice alive Squamish Nation puts together CD-ROM to teach its
language   By Todd Lawson Reporter
In the early 19th century, the Squamish Valley was populated with 16,000
First Nations peoples who lived with a deep respect and understanding of
the land and spirits around them. Through a culture of tradition and
celebration, the natives forged a strong bond between each other as time

To communicate with members from other tribes and strengthen this
connection, the natives developed a rich language called Skomish Snachem ?
a language that has nearly been wiped out from a once-thriving culture.

When the Europeans came to settle in the valley in the early 1800s, they
brought with them diseases that had never before been experienced by the
natives — not to mention a steadfast desire to eradicate Native culture
altogether. Traditional longhouses, a meeting ground for ceremonies and
rituals, were burnt to the ground. Potlatch gatherings were disallowed and
speaking in their native tongue was strictly forbidden. Those who were
caught speaking Skomish Snachem were beaten and whipped by church and
government officials.

As a result of disease and constant abuse, a proud and healthy society was,
in a matter of years, decimated to just 320 survivors. The remaining
populace, represented by 16 different tribes, formed the Squamish Nation in
1923 and struggled to keep their way of life in a white man’s world.

Along with the language, a culture began to die.

Today however, fuelled by the desire to keep the traditional language from
becoming extinct, a group of Squamish First Nations locals have
collaborated on a history-making learning tool to prevent this tragedy from

Spearheaded by Shirley Lewis, a language and culture worker at Totem Hall,
a unique Squamish Nation Education CD-ROM has been produced to teach the
Skomish Snachem language to anyone willing to learn.

"When I first started working for the education department, I saw the need
to revitalize our traditional language," said Lewis. "We need to save part
of our culture. The language is almost extinct and if we don’t do something
now it will be gone."

Her vision was shared by Totem Hall Education Director Joy Joseph
McCullough, and together they started the intensive project after receiving
funding from the First Peoples Heritage and Language Culture Council.

Lewis quickly came to realize, producing an accurate, user-friendly
learning device is not an easy task. She decided to get some help, and
began by enlisting the expertise of local photography/media expert Dave
Humphreys as project manager, who would oversee the many different
multi-media aspects involved.

Humphreys became involved in the project as a result of attending First
Nations gatherings — drum circles, sweat lodges and fire-walking
ceremonies, at every opportunity possible.

"When they approached me with the idea, I was definitely interested because
it was something completely new," said Humphreys, who was responsible for
everything from conceptional ideas to working with "super-talented" local
software developer Peter Wellnhofer, to organizing native art, photography,
graphic design and printing and packaging.

"I learned to take things one step at a time," said Humphreys. "There were
so many different aspects involved—it was a huge project. It was an honour
to work with the Squamish First Nations and help them build something that
they’re proud of. The storytelling was amazing, and for them to share their
legends with me was really honourable—they’re very kind-hearted people."

The CD-ROM features strong visuals and a bold, easy-to-follow layout geared
towards anyone with even the most basic computer skills. By simply clicking
the mouse on any English word you would like to learn in Skomish Snachem,
an image appears followed by the voice of any one of the three Squamish
Nation elders who provide the translated word in the ancestral language.

The CD-ROM teaches aspects of human relations, Indian implements, nature’s
environment, nature’s elements, body parts, emotions, dwelling, clothing,
domestic animals, wild animals, sea animals, reptiles, insects, birds,
numbers and colours. The project would not have been possible without the
voices and knowledge behind the words.

Addie Kermeen and Alex Williams, Squamish First Nations elders fluent in
Skomish Snachem, along with Alice Harry, are the only remaining natives who
speak the language in the Squamish Valley.

Besides lending their voices to provide proper pronunciation of all
language covered in the instructional CD, the elders shared a vast amount
of tradition and culture, which gave the project a completely authentic

Growing up speaking English as a child, Alice Harry was taught the native
language as a little girl at the old Totem Hall by the late Dominic
Charlie. Along with her father Ernie Harry and the late Chief Alvie
Andrews, they began to develop what she now calls "our Bible" — a detailed
categorization of all words in Skomish Snachem.

"I thank the Creator for blessing me with this gift," she says of her
language, "but as we say, it is not a gift unless we share it."

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Addie Kermeen spoke Skomish Snachem
from birth, and didn’t learn any English until the age of 12. Because she
didn’t attend the feared residential schools where the language was beaten
out of all native children, she was able to teach her children and
grandchildren the traditional and cultural ways of her people.

"I didn’t go through the punishment because I stayed at home, so I was able
to pass on the language to my kids," said Kermeen, born on the Seachim
Reserve in 1936.

Alex Williams was also born on the Seachim Reserve, and started his first
job at the age of 13 in the booming logging industry. He struggled to
connect with the white man as he never spoke a word of English, but was
forced to learn quickly.

"I had to learn — [the logging workers] had a lot of fun with me because I
couldn’t speak properly but I did it," said Williams.

At the time, Williams and many other Squamish Nation natives were caught
between a white man’s world and a native world, they didn’t know where they
belonged — their culture was becoming lost. This was the main reason he was
more than happy to lend his voice to the project.

"We’d like to see the younger generations come back to their language. The
trouble is they’re not interested. So if we can teach them some of their
history and traditions—it’ll keep them out of trouble."

Currently, the CD-ROM is being taught by First Nations support workers in
all schools in the Howe Sound School District where native students are
enrolled, as well as in nursery schools and day cares.

According to Lewis, a future vision for the education department is to have
an immersion school for children from Kindergarten to Grade 5 that will
focus primarily on studying the language.

"The project is aimed towards First Nations youth who are willing to become
part of the process to bring back the language and culture—they both go
hand in hand. The kids are all learning on computers now so we had to get
something in front of them. We’ve never had a tool like this before."

Although the traditional way of learning Skomish Snachem involves passing
it down from the elders to the youth, the First Nations society has chosen
to embrace technology in a bid to save the language.

"We’re using technology to help us to get the community to learn the
language. It’s not the traditional method but it’s a great way to get
people to learn. We’re very fortunate to be able to hold onto it and pass
it down — it’s our way of life."

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