'Our language comes from this land': How culture and territory connect for Homalco First Nation

People in the Homalco First Nation in British Colombia know that much of their culture has been drifting away from them and are working to capture and preserve the language and teachings from elders and past generations. 

Revitalizing Éy7á7juuthem is bringing back more than a language

Fay Blaney, left, and her daughter Corena Wilson recently moved home to Homalco First Nation, where they're seeing a resurgence of language and culture in the territory that covers areas of eastern Vancouver Island and stretches across the Salish Sea to the mainland. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

A large cardboard-backed calendar sits in the Homalco band office in Campbell River, B.C. It looks like a medicine wheel, or pie chart, dissected into several sections with words in Éy7á7juuthem and English handwritten in each space. 

It's the first documented copy Homalco has made of its lunar calendar system: the 13 moons. It's a document that tells the story of the territory, along with the life and culture of the Homalco people and neighbouring nations like Klahoose and Tla'amin who've been artificially separated from each other through the waves of colonial disruption. 

The seeds of the calendar came together in Homalco in the early 2000s. Fay Blaney was working with elders at the time to put together a package for the provincial government as they were preparing to go into consultations over fish farms in their territory that stretches from the eastern shores of Vancouver Island across the Salish Sea to the mainland.

From the elders' stories, and working with their neighbouring nation Tla'amin, the 13 moons calendar emerged. 

Blaney grew up on the territory speaking Éy7á7juuthem, but she didn't grow up knowing the lunar calendar. 

"I did those things growing up. I just never put names to them. Like I knew the month of ƛoxʷay, which is right now. The chum salmon, you know, there's a month in the year where we're gaffing salmon on the river and we're catching them by net," she said. 

An early version of Homalco's 13 moons calendar created by Fay Blaney in the early 2000s sits in the band office. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

"There were tons of chum salmon that we could catch and we knew which months when the salmon berries were coming out, that was always a really special time." 

People in Homalco know that much of their culture and language has been drifting away from them through the generations and now there is an effort within the First Nation to capture and preserve the language and teachings from elders and past generations. 

They're increasingly working with the other Éy7á7juuthem-speaking nations — Tla'amin, K'omoks and Klahoose — to enhance revitalization efforts. 

Among those efforts are a community language nest, where preschool children can be immersed in the language, and preservation initiatives with elders. A wildlife tour company is getting youth out of their now-landlocked reserve and back onto the water. 

The move to Campbell River

It's out on the water, and in different parts of the territory, where the intersections of language, land and culture come to life. 

"The language is descriptive of the territory and the resources within the territory," said elected chief Darren Blaney.

"That's what I tell our people — our language comes from this land. English language comes from all over the place but our language comes from this land."  

Elected chief Darren Blaney says the Éy7á7juuthem language comes from the land. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The 13 moons calendar is one of many ways to see those connections, with moon cycles having specific names in Éy7á7juuthem that link Homalco to specific areas of the territory and different times of year, detailing cultural activities and times for harvesting specific resources. 

Campbell River may be part of the traditional territory of the Homalco, but where the on-reserve band members live today near the city is far removed from the coastal villages previous generations called home. 

The Campbell River reserve was established in the late 1980s and early '90s after the nation was squeezed out of Church House, an isolated coastal village site on the B.C. mainland. 

Elders in Homalco say the exit from Church House happened because the federal government stopped funding critical infrastructure and services in the community. By the late 1980s, everyone had left. 

Growing up on the Homalco reserve in Campbell River, Malachi Joseph thought that's all there was to his nation — a little isolated patch of land with some houses and a band office.

He remembers feeling jealous of friends from other nations who seemed to have much more vibrant cultures with communities that were gathering in the big house, having powwows that would go for days. 

"I didn't even know what a potlatch was growing up," he said. 

In the last year, Joseph has taken on a role with the language team working at the Homalco health centre. His job involves spending time with elders, recording the language for the nation's First Voices webpage.

Through this work, Joseph is realizing how much more there is to his nation than he previously understood. He's also realizing how intimately connected the language is its culture, teachings and territory.

"You're going to have to learn one to learn the other," he said. 

Joseph said he still has a lot to learn from the elders in his community and hopes to be able to spend more time out on the territory, which is difficult to access because it's boat access only with no ferry service. 

Homalco historically lived in the heart of their territory, next to the sea. This photo shows community members in the now deserted Church House village. The community was displaced from the area in the 1970s and '80s. (Homalco Indian Band)

He said each time there's an opportunity for community members to travel to places like Church House, people flock to go. 

"I think it's a thirst that needs to be quenched for them." 

'We're looking for our connection' 

Carena Wilson just moved back to Homalco from Vancouver with her mom, Fay Blaney. 

She said for her, the youth of the nation are struggling to find their identity. And in her view, things like the 13 moons calendar are a roadmap for them to follow. 

"We're looking for our connection and that was taken away from our parents," she said.

Looking at what the calendar captures — the way of life that she never got to experience — she said it's a way of understanding how generations before her thrived. 

"I think that it could help us today to help us ground ourselves but also to connect with what kept them going. I think it will help us to find our roots to keep us going in the future."

Revitalizing language was identified as going hand-in-hand with strengthening spiritual and culture connections in Homalco's comprehensive community plan drafted in 2018. (Illustration by Sam Bradd/Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Fay Blaney worries about the younger generations who don't have access to do some of the things she did growing up in Surge Narrows, raised by her great-grandparents: boating through rapids and avoiding sea lions, digging for clams, gathering salmon berries for days, taking part in winter ceremonies with neighbouring nations.

"I think the young people don't have that strong sense of identity and they're searching for it now," she said. 

Now she's hoping the activities detailed in the 13 moons calendar she recorded can be put into action.

For her, she said the first thing she'd like to bring back is the ceremonial gatherings in sotɩč, which is the winter season in English. 

"You know, we do have Christmas gatherings here but I think being in the territory would just have such a different feel to it," she said. 

Darren Blaney said he can already see the language and the culture coming back, but said he thinks the First Nation can't fully recover who they were in the past. 

He compares colonialism to a tornado hitting a community, with people sifting through debris to recover whatever they can of those objects that have personal meaning. 

"When I look at us in First Nations, that's what it's like for us. We've kind of collected little pieces of our culture that we can still use, that we'll still save for the future." 

CBC Indigenous is highlighting a few of the many diverse Indigenous languages that exist across the country. Read more from the Original Voices project.