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Osoyoos Indian Band members committed to revitalizing dying language

In a room tucked away in the basement of the old Osoyoos Indian Band Office, eight students and two teachers sit around a semi-circle of fold up tables practicing the language of the Syilx people. 

This is a Tuesday session of the Osoyoos Indian Band Language House, an immersion program founded to bring the Syilx language, nsyilxcen, back from the brink of extinction. 

The group meets twice a week for full day sessions of language immersion classes. The goal of the four-year program is for the students to graduate with a level of understanding of the nsyilxcen language that will allow them to use it in their everyday lives and maybe even develop into fluent speakers one day. 

The class days are long and require a big commitment from students. It has to be this way, said teacher Sheri Stelkia, to learn a language you have to be immersed in it.  The Osoyoos Indian Band tried other modes to promote language learning in the past, Stelkia said, offering evening classes once or twice a week. But she says this just wasn’t working.

“We were trying to do various other ways, through evening classes, you know, but it’s so hard learning a language. You have to use it all the time and if you’re only doing it for like an hour one evening a week or two evenings a week, by the time you come back the next week, everything is gone that you’ve learned,” said Stelkia. 

Volunteering two full days a week for the next four years is a commitment that most people can’t make, but the Osoyoos Indian Band is committed to the revival of nsyilxcen in the community, giving students opportunities to continue being paid while they learn.

“If somebody were to say OK, you want to learn Spanish? Well then you come to class two days a week like you were giving up your job to go and learn Spanish, and most people would say ‘no I can’t afford it,’” said Stelkia. “A lot of these students are employed by the band or within the band businesses and they’re allowed to come here by their employers. And their wages are continuing to be paid, so they’re actually paid to be here. Otherwise, nobody has time.”

That time is well spent by students, who participate in a program that mirrors the Syilx Language House established in 2015 and run by Michele Johnson, a member of the Okanagan Indian Band. 

Both language houses teach a curriculum created by the Salish School of Spokane and follow 13 course books taking roughly 1,600 hours to complete. Taught using a combination of games, music and written and oral tests, the curriculum is one of a kind. Sheri Stelkia graduated in 2019 and brought the program back with her to the Osoyoos Indian Band. She believes it’s important for people to learn the language so that it can be passed on to future generations. 

Sophie Gray/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

“Goya da Yensdih, the (other) teacher, she has children and some of them are growing up with the language and that’s awesome because it’s a start. And then for this young lady sitting here, when she decides to have kids then she’ll be able to teach them the language right from day one and that’s the way to learn a language. Right from day one,” said Stelkia.

The young lady she’s referring to is Jenna Bower, or cnuk (Chinook), her nsyilxcen name. She heard about the language school through Stelkia herself while working with her at the Desert Cultural Centre last summer. Bower knew she wanted to be a part of the program, so sped up her studies at the University of Calgary in order to graduate and join the class part way through their second semester. She grew up hearing her great grandmother speak nsyilxcen but lost it when she went from the local indigenous school into the Oliver school system, where her language wasn’t offered.

“This is something that’s really important because I know that I wanted the opportunity to take it as a language class at high school and it’s really important for my kids to be able to be fluent. And also for those who want to learn, (they) will be able to learn the actual language of the place that they’re living in,” said Bower.

Looking to become a teacher, Bower would like to teach the language of her people in schools, so that more people can have access to the language that they almost lost. Bower, along with her teachers and fellow classmates, hope to graduate from the program in 2023. They won’t quite be fluent just from the program alone, but they will be helping to keep it alive and teach it to others.

“Looking at it, that would be my hopes to keep going. To turn out a couple language teachers here that could carry on with it,” said Stelkia. 

Sophie Gray, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Osoyoos Times

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