Good news

More than 50 years in the making, SENĆOŦEN language revitalization efforts have touched generations

The Elliott family’s local legacy in teaching and transforming the SENĆOŦEN language continues to impact hundreds of new language learners

By Emily Fagan
October 22, 2021
Good news

More than 50 years in the making, SENĆOŦEN language revitalization efforts have touched generations

The Elliott family’s local legacy in teaching and transforming the SENĆOŦEN language continues to impact hundreds of new language learners

By Emily Fagan
Oct 22, 2021
Emily Fagan / Capital Daily
Good news

More than 50 years in the making, SENĆOŦEN language revitalization efforts have touched generations

The Elliott family’s local legacy in teaching and transforming the SENĆOŦEN language continues to impact hundreds of new language learners

By Emily Fagan
October 22, 2021
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More than 50 years in the making, SENĆOŦEN language revitalization efforts have touched generations
Emily Fagan / Capital Daily

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When Linda Elliott was 16 years old, she knew four languages—English, French, Spanish, and Latin—but not her traditional W̱SÁNEĆ language of SENĆOŦEN. Although her parents spoke SENĆOŦEN to each other, COSINIYE (as she is known in SENĆOŦEN) and her brother had never been taught to speak their own language, she said, “it felt like it was some kind of secret language.”

After growing frustrated, COSINIYE decided to ask her mother.

“She just looked at me for a long time, then finally she said, ‘Well, I didn't want to teach you something that you would be punished for,” COSINIYE said. 

Her mother had been taken away from her family by the government at age four, and forced to attend residential school where she witnessed more than a decade of abuse and trauma. In that environment, COSINIYE explains, practicing your own culture and language was dangerous.

“They were trying to save us from the abuse that they suffered,” she said of her parents.

Driven by COSINIYE’s desire to learn her own language, her father, Dave Elliott, created a written alphabet for the SENĆOŦEN language to help younger generations learn and continue to use their language. COSINIYE and her brother J'SINTEN, also known as John Elliott, became the first students of the SENĆOŦEN alphabet, and have spent the last 50 years building off their father’s legacy to revitalize their language.

Thanks to this work by the Elliott family and W̱SÁNEĆ community, the SENĆOŦEN language has seen a resurgence of new language learners and resources to preserve their traditional knowledge.

The W̱SÁNEĆ School Board runs the SENĆOŦEN Survival School, which offers full immersion in the language for adults and children. COSINIYE and J'SINTEN taught for decades at the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School, passing down the language and cultural knowledge they learned from their Elders. 

At the university level, J'SINTEN worked as a teacher with the University of Victoria and Camosun to cultivate projects and degree programs geared towards Indigenous language revitalization. UVic awarded him with an honourary doctorate in 2019 for his work as a traditional knowledge keeper, teacher, and tireless Indigenous language advocate.

J'SINTEN still teaches two days a week, alongside the grandson of one of the teachers he used to work with. 

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“It's been a good life’s work,” he said.

His efforts to bring his language to the forefront go beyond the classroom, however. In 1999, J'SINTEN co-founded First Voices, a unique Indigenous language online archive and teaching tool. 

Characters from the SENĆOŦEN language are now available on unicode keyboards thanks to J'SINTEN and other members of the Saanich Native Heritage Society and First Peoples' Cultural Foundation. Being able to text and type in their own language was an important step, he said, to make it accessible to their community.

“I believe that our language is the key that future people need to know to understand how to take care of this world properly, because our people looked after this homeland and territory through the vision of our language,” J'SINTEN said.

Much of the work that has been possible, he credits to his father and the Elders who passed down everything they knew about the language and cultural history.

“If we didn't have those Elders, our language would have gone extinct,” he said.

Over the past decade, although the number of fluent Indigenous language speakers has fallen as Elders age, the number of Indigenous language learners has been on the rise. The 2016 Report on the Status of Indigenous Languages stated that the surge of new language learners is most prominent in the young adult population, which the report said “holds much hope for the future of our languages.”

“I think we've changed a lot of things towards a better way of life for our young people. We've had to create a feeling of self-worth and confidence in themselves to find their own inner strength,” COSINIYE said.

“By learning the language, there's a lot of teaching that along with it from the W̱SÁNEĆ peoples' way of seeing the world.”

Learning her language has been a lifelong journey and an act of defiance to reclaim the culture and education that residential schools and the Canadian state had tried so hard to erase.

At 69, COSINIYE is fluent in SENĆOŦEN. She spent 46 years as a teacher passing down her knowledge to generations of W̱SÁNEĆ students—so many, in fact, that she has lost track of the exact number. At the school where J'SINTEN currently teaches, he says there are about 300 students.

“I was trying to figure that out one day,” she said. “I really can't say because the oldest of my students, they’ve got grey hair now.”

She still has students seek her out to thank her, decades later, for teaching them their language.

“They say, ‘It was because of you that I was able to do this,’” she said, “and that's a great feeling.”

To support the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board’s language revitalization program, you can send donations to Tye Swallow by mail or etransfer at finance@wsanecschoolboard.ca. For those interested in learning more about the SENĆOŦEN language, check out the First Peoples’ Map of BC

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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