By Keith Lacey
Special to the Chronicle
A group of a dozen proud First Nation residents from across the Okanagan Valley who signed up more than two years ago to commit to keeping their native language alive reached a celebratory milestone last week.
The group of 12 participants in the Syilx Language House project – which has seen First Nation elders pass on their knowledge and language skills to those in the program – held a special celebration to mark 1,000 hours of classroom study over the past two-and-a-half years.
“We celebrated the completion of 1,000 hours out of the 1,800 hours needed to complete our studies,” said Michele Johnson, the program co-ordinator of the Syilx Language House.
“We’re midway through our third year in the four-year program and we just thought the timing was right to hold a special celebration to celebrate our accomplishments and share our success with the community and all those who have supported us.”
The celebration took place on the Westbank First Nation last Thursday afternoon and it was a blast, said Johnson.
“We did karaoke and danced a little and just had a phenomenal time,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, effort and hard work to get to the point where we are now in the program, so it was time for a little celebration and fun.”
A group of 12 of the original 16 adult learners who started the program back in 2015 have all passed the 1,000-hour mark in the classroom, which is being taught in a classroom on the Penticton Indian Band reserve.
An invitation was extended to all interested community members, friends, leaders, and supporters to attend an Nsyilxcn Celebration. For who may not know, Nsyilxcn is the indigenous language spoken in the Syilx First Nation Territory, also known as Okanagan.
The language is critically endangered with fewer than 100 fluent elder speakers remaining, said Johnson.
Several of those elders are the ones teaching the language to the participants in the program.
“Its renewal is of utmost importance to Syilx communities and its strength is directly linked to community health and well-being as well as traditional practices,” said Johnson.
The Syilx Language House Association, based on the Penticton Indian Band (PIB) reserve, was formed in 2015 as a partnership between several Syilx bands including Osoyoos Indian Band, Westbank First Nation and Okanagan Indian Band near Vernon.
They dedicated themselves as a grassroots association to create and deliver a 2,000 hour program over four years, focusing entirely on language to create new speakers with a strong foundation in cultural knowledge, she said.
“They follow the lead of grassroots Hawaiian language programs, which have succeeded in creating a new community of 500 fluent families since the 1970s,” she said.
Last week’s celebration marked the mid-point of the third year of their four-year program.
The Syilx Language House has a dozen adult learners from across the Syilx Nation from Vernon to the Similkameen, all who have spent over 1,000 hours following an intensive curriculum with support from fluent elders.
The two co-teachers, Johnson and Levi Bent, are intermediate learners themselves and both have created extensive recordings of elders telling Nsyilxcn stories and are sharing them on their website, www.thelanguagehouse.ca.
The celebration provided “the opportunity to express gratitude for the continued dedication of funders, partners, supporters, elders, mentors, and the strength of our families and communities,” said Johnson.
Chief Clarence Louie of the OIB has been a vocal and staunch supporter of the program and attended last week’s celebration.
“Clarence is a very busy man, but he always finds the time to attend every single celebration we’ve held since the program started,” said Johnson. “He and the OIB have shown great support and I know he was proud to be at the celebration as he can see directly the results of all the hard work the learners are putting in.”
The elders who have volunteered to share the language are the keys to success of the program and their knowledge and input has been inspirational, said Johnson.
The learners are expecting to graduate from the program by the summer of 2019 and another major celebration will take place once the ultimate goal of graduating from the program is accomplished, said Johnson.
The long-term plan is to introduce 100 new learners to the Syilx Language House program in early 2020 and have the graduates from year one lead the way as teachers, she said.
“We call it our 2020 plan and we hope to have at least 100 new learners in place by then,” he said.
“We will be the teachers and will work along with elders to continue the program and ensure our language is preserved for generations to come.”
The names of the learners are Jordan Coble, Shayla Allison, Maynard McRae, Levi Bent (co-teacher), Dawn Machin, Krista Allison, Tyler Ernst, Sarah Alexis, Sheri Stelkia, Hailey Causton, Sonya Jensen, Flynn Wetton and Johnson.