Khelsilem turns anger over colonialism into motivation to learn Skwomesh

A young B.C. man’s passion to learn his language has turned into revitalizing the endangered language through a new university immersion course.
"My heart just soars when I have opportunities to speak to others in my language. Right now, I don't have enough people," says 26-year-old Khelsilem. (Kwi Awt Stelmexw)
Although Khelsilem didn't grow up speaking his traditional language, his passion to learn was always there.

Thinking back, he recalls being on the bus in Vancouver and hearing different languages being spoken all around him.

"I remember, as a child, hearing the Vietnamese couples on the bus or an Iranian couple on the street … I didn't understand why they had a language but I wasn't speaking mine," Khelsilem said.

His language is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh or Skwomesh, although it is commonly referred to as Squamish.

Khelsilem grew up with his grandmother, who thought it was important for him to learn the language, but he was only taught individual words.
Khelsilem will be teaching at Simon Fraser University this fall. (Blaire Russell)

"After 10 years in residential school, she wasn't able to speak it as well," he said. "She could understand a lot of speakers but she wasn't quite fluent enough to be able to use it as an everyday language."

After high school, Khelsilem enrolled in a master language class in which he was partnered up with one of just a handful of fluent Skwomesh speakers.

In 2014, a report on the status of B.C. First Nations languages called that language critically endangered, with only seven fluent speakers remaining.

Khelsilem said wanting to learn his language came from an angry, angsty youthful perspective. The more he learned about residential school and the history of colonialism in Canada, the more angry he became.

"I thought about what I would have in my life right now, what my family would have, what my parents would have if none of that had happened," he said.

But he eventually turned that anger into motivation.

"I asked myself the question, 'How am I contributing to the things I'm complaining about or wish to see changed?'"

This fall, Khelsilem will be one of two lead instructors of the adult immersion Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language program at Simon Fraser University. In its first year, the program is hoping to have 15 students.

"All the elders that talked about how the language is important … and this is what it means to be Skwomesh. Anytime I speak the language I can see them, I can feel them, I can hear their breath speaking with me."

To learn how to pronounce Skwomesh and Khelsilem properly, click the listen button above to hear the full interview.