British Columbia

SENĆOŦEN for settlers: Vancouver Island First Nation puts language and culture online

Tired of answering, "How do you say WSÁNEĆ?" elders and leadership are building internet resources for non-Indigenous public.

WSÁNEĆ council is building internet resources to educate the non-Indigenous public

A new SENĆOŦEN dictionary was published in 2018 after decades of work to preserve and translate the Coast Salish language. (Liz McArthur)

Eric Pelkey hears the question constantly: how do you pronounce WSÁNEĆ?

The community engagement coordinator for the south Vancouver Island First Nation isn't alone.

"I've spoken to a lot of people, a lot of communities within our territories, and we seem to be telling them the same things over and over again," Pelkey told CBC On The Island host Gregor Craigie.

So the WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council is launching an online initiative, called "Resource for Settlers," to educate the public about the region's Indigenous language and culture.

The website includes advice on territorial acknowledgements, recommended reading and video resources.

But most important for Pelkey, there's a guide on how to pronounce the very land that First Nations share with settlers.

"We like to promote the correct pronunciation of our people's names, the place names within our territory," he says, noting a long history of language exclusion.  

"That's actually where the name Saanich came from. Settlers couldn't pronounce W̱SÁNEĆ, so they changed it to Saanich."

More than a century of colonization and residential school policies have taken a toll on the WSÁNEĆ language, SENĆOŦEN.

SENĆOŦEN is one of the Coast Salish group of languages that is written in a mainly upper-case alphabet, uniquely created by a community member in the 1970s to express the syllabic subtleties.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen fluent speakers, and just over 100 semi-fluent speakers.

But over the past decade the First Nation has revived the language, publishing a dictionary and establishing classes for members.

Pelkey says expanding resources to the non-Indigenous public isn't driven by frustration, but by genuine demand.

"There is a general hunger out there for knowledge about our people and language," he says.

Pelkey cites the battle to rename Mount Douglas to PKOLS as a spark for public interest. But he says he's also received inquiries about WSÁNEĆ language and culture from tourists, and from curious people as far away as Germany and Japan.

He says elders have led this initiative, not just as an educational resource, but as another step toward reconciliation.

"I've seen a lot of racism, you know, and I feel now people are becoming more educated and knowledgeable," Pelkey said.

"It creates a better understanding between us, about what we've actually lost, and where we'd like to go as a people."

Gregor Craigie spoke with Eric Pelkey, the Community Engagement Coordinator for WSANEC leadership council, about a new website to promote learning among non-Indigenous community members. 8:24

With files from CBC's On The Island