First cohort of Hul’q’umi’num’ speakers graduate with Indigenous Languages diploma
By Geoff Gilliard
SFU’s Indigenous Languages Program celebrated its first Hul’q’umi’num’ graduates from the Diploma Program in Proficiency in a First Nations Language. Six students—Christopher Alphonse, Roseanna George, Martina Joe, Thomas Johnny, Donna May Modeste, and Sharon Seymour—completed the diploma in December 2019 and were eligible to convocate this June.
They are continuing in the Bachelor of Arts program with an extended minor in linguistics and the new minor in Indigenous Languages, which was approved by SFU Senate last month. The diploma program and the new minor build on the certificate program. Since 1993, SFU has partnered with communities to offer courses in 18 languages in British Columbia and Yukon.
Twenty-five students of two other languages, Secwepemctsin and Skwxwu7mesh Snichim, completed their diplomas this spring.
Hul’q’umi’num’ is a Coast Salish language spoken in southeastern Vancouver Island, along the shores of the Salish Sea. Hul’q’umi’num’, like many Indigenous languages, has very few remaining fluent speakers. The SFU students play a vital role in their communities as language teachers and material developers.
Chris Alphonse always wanted to learn Hul’q’mi’num’ because his parents and grandparents were fluent in the language.
“When this opportunity came along, I could not pass it up,” he says. “Because of colonization and residential school, there’s a gap in the language transmission. We recognize the need to revitalize and protect our language, because the culture and the language go hand in hand with our well-being.”
Linguistics professor Donna Gerdts, associate director of the First Nations Language Program says, “We offer a very unique program in which community elders and academics collaborate to help speakers gain fluency while learning valuable skills in language documentation and revitalization.” Courses take place at the Shhwulmuhwqun language center in Duncan, B.C.
Much of the diploma curriculum is based on legacy audio and video recordings that Gerdts has transcribed and translated with the help of elders Ruby Peter and Delores Louie. The SFU students are now writing their own stories, drawing on their cultural teachings and life experiences. For example, undergraduate and graduate students performed a play in Hul’q’umi’num’, based on a story, Jealous Moon—hw’it’ttsus lhqel’ts, written by Chris Alphonse, before an appreciative audience in Duncan, B.C. last summer.
Sharon Seymour says she heard Hul’q’umi’num’ in her home growing up. “They would talk and laugh, so I was always interested in what made them so happy. I wanted to learn to understand the great stories told by my relatives.”
“Learning from SFU opened my eyes and heart and mind to Hul’q’umi’num’,” she says. “There are many elders here now that can speak the language so beautifully but have never written it. Learning to write, read and speak it is very mind blowing at times. I have taken a lot from learning this way and I’m so very grateful to be on this path.”
Seymour hopes to share what she’s learned with her family and friends who want to learn the language, particularly her 11-year-old son. She is currently teaching adults in a culturally based language class where she also puts her skills as a cedar-weaver to work.
Martina Joe says, “It’s too bad about this summer’s ceremony being cancelled, but I have fond memories from last June when I received my certificate at the same time my auntie received her MA degree and my grandma received her honorary doctorate. I am proud to follow in their footsteps.”
Joe says she knows that the damage done to their language cannot be undone overnight and she is making it her life’s mission to reclaim her language.
“I look forward walking up on the stage to receive my BA in fall 2021,” she says.