British Columbia

'Being able to walk with their heads up': Indigenous students gain pride through language revitalization

Mandy Jones is the Hul'qumi'num language co-ordinator for the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District. She says she has seen a dramatic increase in demand in her school district for the language classes.

CBC Series Beyond Beads and Bannock takes an in-depth look at Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools

Cowichan Tzinquaw dancers joined other Hul'qumi'num language students at the annual t’uxusthumpsh Indigenous language symposium on Vancouver Island. ((Photo courtesy of Cara McKenna/Salish Sea Sentinel))

"There is a cry for Hul'qumi'num in our schools."

That is how teacher and Snuneymuxw elder, Mandy Jones, describes the need for Hul'qumi'num language classes in her school district.

Hul'qumi'num is the language of many Coast Salish nations on Vancouver Island, including the Cowichan Tribes and the Penelakut First Nation. 

Jones is the Hul'qumi'num language co-ordinator for the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District, and she has been working in schools for 40 years. 

Jones says she has seen an incredible growth in the demand for language programs, since she began working as an educational assistant. 

"When I first started, the only place that we received our language was the schools on the reserve," Jones said.

"They started bringing forward elders into the public schools, and I've seen it grow from there.

"We are trying to receive as many schools as we can, because there is a cry for Hul'qumi'num in our schools and our district, and we love it. We are growing."

Mandy Jones, her co-teacher Bill Taylor and their Hul'qumi'num language students, pose in front of a weaving project. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

'Hands-on learning'

In the classroom, Jones combines languages instruction with cultural teachings for what she describes as hands-on learning. 

"We learn by doing certain activities, like spinning and weaving so we use our vocabulary with that," Jones said.

"Our goal is that all our student become teachers. They become teachers of the language. They go and teach other students who aren't in our program."

An Indigenous student at Ladysmith Secondary School, Kam Metcalf, studies Hul'qumi'num with Jones.

Metcalf says his mother taught him some Hul'qumi'num at home, and his grandmother encouraged him to take the language class.

"My grandmother has come to the class. She has come and helped," Metcalf said.

"She's happy that I'm in it. And so is my Mom."

From student to teacher

Metcalf has also evolved from student to teacher, sharing Hul'qumi'num with his little sister and friends. 

Ben Scott is a non-Indigenous classmate of Metcalf and he applies the traditional cultural teachings to other aspects of his life. 

A spinning wheel and a canoe are used in the Hul'qumi'num language class to teach cultural practices. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

"The teachings here, for the wool and the canoe, is first of all to treat everything you make, any kind of stuff you are putting together from scratch, you always want to work on it with a good heart and a good mind," Scott said. 

"I have learned that very well from this class. So, I would say it's applied to numerous other school classes."

Reviving language at home

Jones describes the learning of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous students as "beautiful." 

Her own mother was a residential school survivor who was punished for speaking Hul'qumi'num. 

"She didn't want us to speak our language. She was afraid we would go through the same as her."

As language revitalization grows, Jones says her own students are now using Hul'qumi'num at home. 

"For instance, if they say 'huy'ch'qa​' [thank you], the parent would now come back and say 'namut kwu, 'you are welcome.' I see our First Nations students grow by being proud of who they are, being able to walk with their heads up."

Beyond Beads and Bannock is an in-depth look at indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools. The series runs on CBC B.C. radio, TV and digital Sept. 3 to 8. 

Read more from CBC British Columbia

now