SFU student hopes to help preserve Snuneymuxw culture through language
by Maryam Imitiaz
In an effort to ebb the decline of First Nations’ languages in North America, SFU master’s in linguistics student Kevin Baetscher, who is fluent in six languages, is studying the Hul’q’umin’um language of the Snuneymuxw First Nations, who reside on Vancouver Island.
Hul’q’umin’um and its various dialects are now only spoken by about 50 to 70 people on both the island and the mainland, and a majority of these speakers are elders.
Baetscher explained that many of the teachers in the reservation schools focus their teaching on separate words and simple sentences, “So, what many children learn in school are separate words. For example they learn the words for animals or the words for colours, and it’s cool if you know that but it doesn’t make you speak.
“Unless you’re able to converse, you can’t say that you can speak the language. Language is much more than just replacing words.”
According to Baetscher the challenge for most learning this language is the grammar, which is quite complicated, as well as the pronunciation. This is made even more difficult because the minute number of people speaking Hul’q’umin’um makes it difficult to get adequate exposure to the language.
Baetscher will be spending his summer on the reservation while working on his master’s thesis, which focuses on how to link sentences and form more complex ones in the language. He also plans to record the language being spoken by the elders and then transcribe and translate it as a tool for learning. By doing so, Baetscher hopes to strengthen the language and make it available not just to academics, but to the community at large.
Baetscher is keenly aware of the important cultural aspects of language, and so he and his colleagues use the canoe as a means for teaching students the language. Canoeing is a central part of the Snuneymux culture, so the activity seemed appropriate during the summer months.
Baetscher’s experience with the Snuneymuxw First Nations has allowed him to immerse himself in the Snuneymuxw culture, witnessing potlatches and ceremonies as well as meeting other Coastal First Nations.
Snuneymuxw First Nation councillor Bill Yoachim told the Nanaimo Daily News that Baetscher had been welcomed into the community with open arms. “Having individuals such as [Baetscher] championing our language and culture will bring positive awareness, but also challenges us to put the same effort into our language,” said Yoachim.
For Baetscher, it is crucial that Canadians see these cultures not as artifacts, but living, breathing communities. He said, “I hope that people will be able to look at native cultures and respect and support and realize those cultures are ancient but they are not something that only exists in museums.
Baetscher hopes his work will help the community: “Its something very real and current, and those cultures they are really colourful and rich. [. . .] All of what we are doing is somehow going to help them to strengthen their own language and culture,” concluded Baetscher.