Celebrating the launch of the Snuneymuxw language learning hub
by Robyn Humphreys
At the invitation of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, representatives from SFU's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) travelled to Nanaimo in July 2022 to witness the opening ceremony of the new Snuneymuxw Learning Academy (SLA).
Located in the building of a former elementary school, the new SLA will act as a language learning hub for Hul'q'umi'num' language learners as well as a site for community programming such as youth mentorship, plant medicine, and employment training. The creation of the academy is the culmination of partnerships between the Snuneymuxw First Nation, the Nanaimo Ladysmith School District, the Hul'q'umi'num' Language & Culture Society, the University of Victoria, and SFU's Indigenous Languages Program (INLP).
According to a Snuneymuxw First Nation press release, "SLA was created with an understanding that the ancient knowledge systems of our great lands can only be fully appreciated by first knowing and recognizing the relationship between language, land and culture." The statement goes on to say, "The knowledge of the land expressed through Hul'q'umi'num' is critical to maintaining the continuity of Indigenous knowledge systems."
While the ceremony was aimed at celebrating the launch of the SLA, it was also a community event to showcase the progress achieved by the students in the language programs. Conducted entirely in Hul'q'umi'num', the ceremony featured performances by SFU INLP students. On stage, the students performed songs, poem readings, and a play titled hw’ittsus lhq’el’ts’ (Jealous Moon) which was written by Christopher Alphonse, a graduate of the Diploma in Indigenous Language Proficiency program.
“It was meaningful for the older members of the community to witness the performances as it showed how much the younger community members had worked on preserving and learning the language,” says FASS Director of Indigenous Relations Tim Michel, who was among the SFU delegation present at the opening ceremony. “I was impressed with the the students had. Although some were a little shaky, they exhibited good facility with the language and performed admirably.”
Inspired by the students’ efforts and tenacity to speak and perform in Hul’q’umi’num’, Michel delivered his opening speech in his Secwepemctsín mother tongue. Upon returning from Nanaimo, he also enrolled to audit an INLP course based out of his hometown of Chase, and plans to join another conversational language course next term. Linguistics professor and INLP associate director Donna Gerdts also spoke at the ceremony, giving recognition to the monumental work the community has put forward to make the SLA a reality. While Gerdts and professor Marianne Ignace have been instrumental in creating Indigenous languages programming, it is important to acknowledge the individuals in the communities themselves who with great pride in their heritage and language, have advanced this programming further by making it their own.
The opening of the SLA marks the second language hub SFU has formed in collaboration with Indigenous communities and organizations. The first being the Shhwulmuhwqun Language House in Duncan, B.C. with the Hul'q'umi'num' Language & Culture Society.
Since 1993, SFU INLP has partnered with communities to offer courses in 18 Indigenous languages from across B.C. and Yukon, including Hul'q'umi'num' which is a Coast Salish language spoken along the shores of the Salish Sea. This fall, the newly opened SLA will host the 2022-23 cohort of the program's Hul'q'umi'num' Certificate in Indigenous Language Proficiency. INLP's diploma program, minor in Indigenous Languages Program, and masters in Indigenous Languages and Linguistics are also offered on site at the new centre.