UBC’s Okanagan campus celebrates its first two Aboriginal PhD graduates this week. Both say they are taking what they have learned back to their Okanagan communities in the Syilx traditional territories, which extend from B.C.’s south central interior to north-central Washington.
Michele Johnson learned the Nsyilxcn language, which is spoken in the Syilx First Nation territory, and is now teaching it to others in an effort to bring it back from the brink of extinction. An Indigenous language activist, Johnson is currently pursuing post-doctoral research in Indigenous language revitalization through Simon Fraser University and teaching new cohorts of learners.
Marlowe Sam’s PhD thesis examines Indigenous water rights in Canada and the U.S. A long-time Aboriginal rights activist, Sam is teaching Indigenous studies at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, a First Nation post-secondary institution offering educational programs to enhance Aboriginal culture, language, political development, and leadership.
Michele Johnson came to UBC’s Okanagan campus in 2008 planning to study ethno-botany and its relationship to Syilx culture and narrative. While taking a course on the Nsyilxcn language, she discovered it was critically endangered with only 50 fluent speakers remaining.
“I became tremendously passionate about the language,” says Johnson, whose name translates as Sʔímlaʔxʷ in Nsyilxcn. “It was a transformative journey – the layers of transformation occurred through the layers of the language. It was a personal, academic and cognitive lesson for me.”
Johnson was sensitive to her Syilx roots as a child, but did not speak Nsyilxcn growing up. She became acutely aware that Nsyilxcn is rapidly disappearing from the cultural landscape, as no children in Canada are being raised with the language.
She decided to study the Nsyilxcn language along with teaching methods as her Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies PhD project, through the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. Her supervisor was Christine Schreyer, an anthropological linguist, who offered guidance as did Sʕamtic’aʔ Sarah Peterson and Christopher Parkin, gifted teachers and creators of the Paul Creek Language Association, based in Keremeos, B.C.
Video: A Nsyilxcn lullaby written and recorded by Michele Johnson
Johnson and four other like-minded Nsyilxcn learners set up a “language house”–living and working together, studying intensely, and threading Nsyilxcn into the fabric of their everyday lives. They invited Sʕamtic’aʔ and other Elders to their home, learning traditional storytelling, breathing and living Nsyilxcn as much as they could. Now an intermediate speaker, Johnson is one of the few researchers who has documented language teaching methods that can create speakers within two years of study.
She has written songs, stories, and made videos in Nsyilxcn as part of her investigation into the richness of language.
Johnson has come to realize that revitalizing and speaking Indigenous language is her chawt – a Nsyilxcn word referring to the role and responsibility of every living being.
The revitalization of Indigenous languages is, in Johnson’s words, highly politicized; there is widespread opinion within First Nations communities about change, stewardship and promotion of language. But Johnson believes that making a difference starts with recruiting young speakers to preserve and revitalize cultural values through learning their language.
She plans to teach new cohorts of learners through her post-doctorate research and will continue to record fluent speakers. She will also be teaching language revitalization through the University of Victoria this summer while continuing to support the creation of new speakers through grass roots efforts.
“That’s what true activism is … looking to use what you have learned,” she says.
For Marlowe Sam, education is the key that unlocks many doors.
Graduating with a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, Sam, a member of the Wenatchi band of Northern Washington, now teaches Indigenous studies at Penticton’s En’owkin Centre.
“I feel this is my calling,” says Sam. “I like teaching and having the opportunity to change people’s perspectives. Even a lot of our own people do not know Okanagan history and the impacts of colonialism.”
Many Aboriginals feel the burden of colonialism from their history with residential schools. Sam wants to shed light on the matter, providing historical context to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Understanding that history helps lift the burdens of oppression, guilt and raises confidence among students so they can carve out their own futures, says Sam.
“I like to have the ability to open those doors for both Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students,” says Sam. “I teach different methodologies. I don’t lecture students with a certain point of view, but let them come to their own conclusions themselves.”
Educating students so they understand their relationship to the rest of the world, to the land and all living creatures gives voice to what Sam calls his first calling: political activism, advocating for Aboriginal rights and ensuring there is opportunity for future generations.
“It’s exciting to work within the system,” says Sam. He credits the University for having the foresight to help Aboriginal people gain a higher education, beyond undergraduate degrees.
“UBCO and Indigenous studies are pretty unique to our area,” says Sam. He says informal discussions could lead to Okanagan (Syilx) courses being offered at several other post-secondary institutions in B.C. and the Wenatchee and Colville areas of Washington.
This in turn brings a world of possibility to Sam’s doorstep, in extending his knowledge to new generations on both sides of the 49th parallel.
“There’s a big interest around the [course] content,” says Sam, of Aboriginal issues. “I don’t know if that has been done yet anywhere across North America, with institutions across borders cooperating like this. It will be interesting to see if it turns into anything.”
If it does, Sam plans to be part of that pioneering effort.