Elders and great-grandchildren share the legacy of learning Hul'q'umi'num'

Coast Salish elders are passing on the Hul'q'umi'num' language to the younger generations at a language house on Vancouver Island. Ruby Peter has five generations of language learners in her family that spans from a language nest to the university convocation hall.

Intergenerational learning is thriving at the Shhwulmuhwqun—Language House on Vancouver Island

Four generations of Ruby Peter's family were part of a university convocation ceremony in June. (Cindy Li)

For one family on Vancouver Island, their Indigenous language is a bond between five generations.

Hul'q'umi'num' is a Coast Salish language spoken by nations on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is the language Elder stitum'at (Ruby Peter), 86, grew up speaking in her Cowichan community.  

This spring Peter, her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter all received university honours for their study, research and teaching of Hul'q'umi'num'. Peter herself received honorary doctoral degrees from both the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University.  

The legacy of speaking and teaching the language was instilled in Peter by her own mother, Cecelia Alphonse. 

This occurred despite the fact that Peter was forced to attend an Indian Day School where she was frequently punished for speaking Hul'q'umi'num'. 

Peter said her mother knew what was happening at the school, but she insisted they speak their language at home. 

Ruby Peter and her sister Delores Louie helped to write the first dictionary of Hul'q'umi'num'. The team also included Agnes Eli, Ellen White, Violet Charlie and Theresa Thorne. (Jean Paetkau/CBC)

'Don't you ever forget'

"Our mother was very strict and she always told us 'You learn the English language but don't you ever forget your Hul'q'umi'num' language,'" Peter said. 

"We have to learn to be honourable and learn how to respect our people and ourselves. And that's how we were raised."

Despite being physically abused by the nuns at the school, Peter began her career as an educator telling stories in Hul'q'umi'num' during school recess. 

"We weren't supposed to be using our language but little children were fluent and they would sit around me and I'd tell them many different stories," Peter said. 

Ava-Lynn Jimmy-Charles is the great great granddaughter of Ruby Peter, the fifth generation of one family learning Hul'q'umi'num' through the language house in Duncan. (Jean Paetkau/CBC)

"And how we did it was to have one child over here watching one corner, and another child on this side watching the other corner of a school. And if a sister [nun] appeared in one corner then I told them, OK, you say 'there's a crow coming.'" 

Peter's mother didn't just instill her own daughter with a love for Hul'q'umi'num', she also taught the language to Peter's daughter stitumaatulwut (Bernadette Sam).

Sam said her grandparents took care of her while her mother was at school.

"My grandmother didn't speak English. So when she communicated, it was broken English," Sam said. 

Despite a childhood immersed in the language, the legacy of Indigenous people being punished for speaking their language left a toll on Sam. She said she experienced a "block" when she approached language learning as an adult. 

The Shhwulmuhwqun—Language House in Duncan is also a gathering space where meals and friendships are shared. (Jean Paetkau/CBC)

'We're going to undo the bad'

"When we first started this program, we held a ceremony," Sam said. 

"We had a speaker, put a blanket on him, and we called witnesses. And we we explained what we're doing. That we're going to undo the bad and explain that we're going to kind of give each other permission to speak the language."

Sam and Peter became two of the driving forces behind the Shhwulmuhwqun—Language House in Duncan, B.C., which opened in 2018 as a home for the Hul'q'umi'num' Language and Culture Society.

At the language house, students work alongside elders to create games, songs, poems, stories and plays. The society hosts language learning opportunities for all ages, funded by B.C.'s First Peoples Culture Council.

The Shhwulmuhwqun—Language House


2 years ago
Classes at the Shhwulmuhwqun—Language House include drumming, singing and the sharing of stories. 1:40

The society partners with Simon Fraser University to deliver post-secondary programs leading to certificates, diplomas, and a master's degree in linguistics of a First Nations language. This June the first 12 students graduated from the program, including Sam. 

Peter's great-granddaughter Martina Joe received her certificate in linguistics at the convocation ceremony in the spring. She also brings her two daughters to the language nest. 

"We introduce [the language] with the basics — colours, animals, numbers and action words," Joe said. 

"And we're starting to use words we use at home — cleaning, bathing, getting dressed."

Ruby Peter is not the only one to have generations of offspring learning at the language house. 

Rae-Anne Claxton Baker is from the Tsawout First Nation on Vancouver Island. 

Her youngest daughter Eva-Gail Baker, 6, went through the language nest program and her daughter Sierra Pelkey, 19, does theatre in Hul'q'umi'num' at the language house. 

Rae Anne Claxton Baker and her two daughters, Eva Gail and Sierra, have all learned Hul'q'umi'num' through the language house in Duncan. (Jean Paetkau/CBC)

Pelkey said she can learn the line from a play quickly even though she doesn't understand every word.

"For me, it's really easy once I know the emotion I am supposed to put behind the lines," Pelkey said.

'Able to express myself'

Claxton Baker describes the language house as a space where a lot of important learning happens. 

"For myself, I feel that it's very important as a First Nations person to be able to express myself, my identity and my land in my own language," she said. 

But Claxton Baker is also always thinking about the next generation. 

"It's not only where we're learning but it's where we're teaching and it's where we're learning to become teachers." 

The success of the next generation is also a source of pride for Peter. 

"[It] really makes me happy that they're they're listening, they're hearing," Peter said. 

"We have young people that are really interested and I'm glad."

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