When Alex Williams was growing up, the Squamish language — Skwxú7mesh snichim — was the only tongue spoken by Williams, his family and fellow Squamish Nation members.
When government agents came around the Williams home in the Squamish Valley near Brackendale looking for children to cart off to residential school, Williams' father “chased me out, gave me a piece of bread and said, 'You go out in the field and stay there,'” the Squamish elder, 84, told The Chief at his home in North Yards on Friday (April 12).
The fact that he never attended the racist and now-discredited residential school system is one reason Williams, whose aboriginal name is Xatsalánexw ta áynexw, is today one of only two people in the Squamish area who can speak the language fluently. He and elder Addie Kermeen have served as both an inspiration and a valuable resource for the Squamish Nation Language Festival that's set to take place on Monday (April 22) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Totem Hall.
The event, which takes place on a non-instructional day at local public schools, will include games, songs and activities in the Skwxú7mesh language reinforcing its everyday use among young and old Squamish Nation members alike, said Shirley Lewis (Xayiltennat), Squamish Nation language and cultural worker.
The festival is part of a multi-faceted effort to ensure the language's long-term survival, not only by teaching it in the schools, but by encouraging parents to speak it at home, event co-organizer Rebecca Campbell said.
Squamish Nation cultural workers, for example, have begun to provide both parents and children with a list of common Squamish phrases that can be used around the home, as a way to reinforce the learning that takes place Sea to Sky School District schools, Campbell said. So far 15 families in the Squamish area are part of the program, she said.
Initiatives such as the Skwxú7mesh-English Dictionary, completed in 2011 by Dr. Peter Jacobs, are key to the long-term survival of the tongue spoken commonly by Alex Williams and others in their youth. But it's also important to reinforce the idea among young Squamish Nation people that it is a living language and a vital part of a culture of which they should be proud, Campbell said.
“The goal is to revive the language by trying to have it used every day at home — getting the parents on board, not just the children,” she said.
At Monday's festival, young and old will take part in a Twister-style game that includes Skwxú7mesh words and phrases, as well as one that includes the terms for the various body parts as well as chair and hiding games all using words and actions in Skwxú7mesh.
“It builds vocabulary,” Campbell said. “It's part of the immersion technique. They learn the language because it's fun.”
Lewis said those organizing the festival are inspired by a desire to ensure that the language spoken by Williams and Kermeen thrives after the respected elders are gone.
“We try to utilize them as much as we can,” she said.
Williams only began learning English at age 13, after he went to work in a logging camp in Parkhurst, near what's now Whistler, by listening to the radio and to the non-Aboriginal English-speaking people around him. He's now fluent in both languages.
“I've spoken [Skwxú7mesh] since I was a kid and I haven't forgotten it,” he said. “I'll never forget.”
Listen to Alex Williams speak the Squamish language -