SFU honours the gift of Valerie Suli’xwi’ye Bob’s Hul'q’umi'num' language research

September 04, 2023

Penelakut First Nation member, Valerie Suli’xwi’ye Bob, spent much of her life giving: as a former teacher; as a committee member and a chair on various cultural and community committees; as a storyteller; family member; and as a knowledge keeper, researcher, and teacher of Hul’q’umi’num’ language. In each of her roles, Valerie was committed to giving back to those in the communities she worked with as well as to those who will come after her. 

On August 9, 2023, SFU determined there was an opportunity to give back to Valerie when her PhD degree was conferred in front of her family and community members at her home.

Acting Dean of Graduate Studies, George Agnes, and Associate Director, Indigenous Policy and Pedagogy, Dorothy Cucw-la7 Christian, travelled to Penelakut Tribe’s Tsussie Reserve home in the Cowichan Valley for this first-of-its-kind ceremony and parchment presentation.

This PhD degree is the culmination of an 18-year journey that began when Valerie started her undergraduate degree. 

Jillian Harris, Valerie’s older sister, shared some of Valerie’s struggles with the medical system. Valerie’s health had been an issue for some time, but she was not taken seriously by the doctors. It was not until Valerie fell into a coma for three months that they diagnosed her with cancer.  

“When Valerie woke up, she jumped right back into doing the work on her PhD. Her first question was, ‘Where’s my computer?’” says Harris.

Completing her research for her doctoral degree was particularly important for Valerie. She grew up hearing Nez Perce (from her mother) and  Hul’q’umi’num’ (from her father) languages spoken at home. However, she did not learn either language.  

When Valerie was in her 20’s, she joined the 1910 Indian Shaker Church, where she was encouraged to learn to speak her Hul’q’umi’num’ language through songs and prayers. Valerie’s convention travels throughout the Pacific Northwest with the 1910 Indian Shaker Church helped her to improve her language proficiency.

Valerie continued with her own language learning and inspired others in her family and community to learn or relearn their language as well. Through this learning and relearning of the Hul’q’umi’num’ language, Valerie saw that she could give back to her community by creating learning opportunities for them.  

She understood that the Hul'q'umi'num language embedded the concepts that gave clarity to Indigenous/Coast Salish methodologies, which is what opened the doors for Valerie to creatively work towards learning and preserving songs and stories in her language.  

Roxanne Panchasi, graduate program chair for the INS program had high praise for Valerie’s research. Saying, “Valerie’s work illustrates that creativity and scholarly rigour can go hand-in-hand. In fact, her work demonstrates how Indigenous methodologies can connect academia and wider communities in meaningful ways.”

Dorothy Cucw-la7 Christian says, “The research that Valerie did is significant to the Coast Salish peoples. This research and Valerie Bob’s status in her community were the reasons why it was important to ensure that her degree was granted in such an unusual manner. It was community members who reached out to me when Valerie’s health took a turn for the worse.”  

Mary O’Brien, SFU Graduate Studies’ new vice-provost and dean, was on her first day when Christian, Agnes and Panchasi approached her about Valerie’s health and how they wanted to work to ensure Valerie’s degree was conferred while she was still alive.

“This was a reminder that every graduate student is a human being and the work we do in graduate studies must be done with this in mind. Valerie’s committee agreed that she had earned her degree. The Senate Graduate Studies Committee (the main body concerned with graduate policies and academic standards at the graduate level) also agreed unanimously that she earned the degree. Every unit in SFU that we needed to work with to complete the process, including the Office of the Registrar, mobilized quickly to make the right things happen,” says O’Brien.

Valerie’s cousin, Lloyd Bob, who is the Head Provincial Elder of the 1910 Indian Shaker Church in Canada, blessed the SFU regalia and parchment before they were delivered to Valerie, with family and community members at her side.   

Christian read a letter to Valerie from her Supervisor, Professor Marianne Ignace, Director of the SFU Indigenous Languages Program, that said in part, “In mind, spirit and words, your work will leave a deep and long-lasting legacy, and this is a wonderful way for us to acknowledge that.”  

Says Christian, “The median age of Indigenous graduate students at SFU is 44. Some Indigenous life stages are different from western notions of age. In Dorothy’s culture, she was once told by an Elder, ‘you don’t grow up until you’re 45’. I understood Valerie and she and I connected because we both know the responsibility of giving back to the community – the notion of reciprocity – was deeply felt by both of us and I knew I had to do something to help make this happen.” 

And because the community, her committee members, graduate studies and SFU worked together to make this happen, the gift of her work and her legacy will continue to live on and continue to contribute to generations of Hul’q’umi’num’ speakers to come. 

You can learn more about some of Valerie’s work on the Hul’q’umi’num’ Sxwi’em’ website and the ta’ulthun sqwal (Hul’q’umi’num’ Language Academy) website.


We are filled with sadness to announce that Valerie Bob, PhD passed away on Sept 1, 2023.  

We send our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and loved ones.

Photos of Valerie Bob's Community