Convocation, Profile

June 24, 2021

Donna Modeste the first Double Minor BA Indigenous Languages and Linguistics

Donna May Modeste’s Hul’q’umi’num’ name is Qwuthqwithulwut. She is the first to graduate from SFU with the Double Minor BA Indigenous Languages and Extended Minor in Linguistics.  And she already knows how she will use her training as a language researcher, educator, and material developer “to help save the Hul’q’umi’num’ language from extinction.”

Modeste grew up at Porlier Pass (xi’xnupsum’), British Columbia. A resourceful young person, she became a commercial fisher at the age of nine with her older sister rowing the skiff. She would sell her rock cod and ling-cod to the local fish buyer for 10 cents a pound.

“The only memories I have of our language growing up is that we would only have Hul’q’umi’num’ speakers when they came to us -- because we lived kind of isolated on Galiano Island, and there were a lot of hippies around then.  But when Hul’q’umi’num’ is spoken it is always in a cheerful voice; so I grew up associating hearing Hul’q’umi’num’ with being a happy time and with when people came to see us. But I didn’t speak  Hul’q’umi’num’  when I was a child. I learned as an adult.  Apparently my Grandmother only spoke Hul’q’umi’num’ to me.  So, I guess it is kind of in my subconscious maybe.”

When asked what this memory means to her now, she says, “I guess it means happiness now.  And if I hear Hul’q’umi’num’ spoken in a store or out and about, it’s a very calming language, it makes me feel safe.  You can even hear it in the sound of how Hul’q’umi’num’ people speak even if they are speaking English. It’s something in the rhythm and sound.”   

Modeste is the creator of the Meli series of stories --  short stories with short phrases to accentuate the verb or the noun or both to help learners of the language.  For example, she says, “you can really see the basic language structure with just ‘Kick a ball.’ I try and take out the distractions.  There’s about 10 stories so far. One story is only in first person. Then another is only in second person and another, is only in third person.  It started out as stories for 5-year-olds but it seems to really help us too.”

Modeste’s stories are specifically written to help learners of the language and history. She is also author of upcoming stories, tth'atth'uhwum' slhap which are based on her life events as a teenager aboard a seine boat fishing for herring and sockeye salmon.  Modeste married at 16 and fished areas around Johnson Straights and Haida Gwaii with her husband.  In 1976, she was one of the first female commercial fisherwomen on our coast.  “And after I started, then everyone wanted a female aboard and brought their mums and such.”

A pioneer early in life, she feels like a pioneer again here at SFU and in the Indigenous Languages Program – “Each intake of students, each group completes sooner and sooner as each group learns more and passes it on.  And we are doing that now with the last class I am in, now having experience with the language and teaching it… we are all pioneers in this language learning and I am still learning with the next group of learners. It is awesome. I guess we are going to learning for the rest of our lives.”.

What will Modeste do after convocation?

“I’m going to continue researching the language and comparing dialects and see what the differences are – and spend the next couple of years getting to really get to know the words, taking them apart and thinking about what we learned.  Hopefully I will get a job. But if I don’t, I will focus on my grandchildren so I can teach them Hul’q’umi’num’.  And because their mum is from Argentina, they could end up being tri-lingual.”

Carrying on learning by doing she says, “I may even record their progress like we did in the research work we did in our program using “language Nests” to teaching young speakers.

While at SFU Modeste felt fortunate to study with “some amazing and esteemed elders” of her language and culture. She believes that storytelling is an important way of teaching in her culture.  We thank her for sharing her story with us.


It’s a lot harder than it seems – We’ve been working day and night. My advice is dedication. You are going to give up a lot, but it is worth it.

Hopefully you have a supportive family because it is so worth it for them too. Because we’re going to pass it on. 

We are lucky to be studying with Donna Gerdts and with our elders. I kept thinking. this is my opportunity to work with these teachers and elders, so I had to keep going. And I appreciate our elders.

For more info on Indigenous Languages Program

Spring 2021 Featured Graduates

This spring convocation, the Department of Linguistics is recognizing a small group of graduating students for their accomplishments in the department.