As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder

How We Communicate—By Elsie Paul

The language is most difficult to learn for the new speakers today, because it was lost for so long. It’s really difficult for them, the young people especially. And since now we’ve lost a lot of our speakers, our Elders, the fluent speakers, the very traditional people – we’ve lost those over the last few years. So you can’t turn your life around in one generation. It will take just as long to get our language back, if we ever will – our identity, our self-esteem, our pride, and our work ethics, our respect, and honour.

We could talk about the importance of the language. We’re trying to preserve as much as we can. So I have worked with different groups of people that are documenting the language. We’re trying to document the language. And for its use, too, in the school system, ’cause it’s taught in the school system now in our area. So for that purpose we’ve done a lot of documenting. And for the community as well, all the recording that we did around that. To try to interest the people in using that, encourage the people to listen to it and listen to it at their own leisure and be able to learn the language that way, or to revive the language. So it is a lot of work. It’s no ending to that work, and I don’t think it will ever end, because a lot of the people don’t use the language anymore. A lot of people don’t know the language anymore. So there’s very few that use it or that know it or are fluent in it. But we do as much as we can for the sake of the school program, and hopefully it will work.

Documenting the Language

I do a lot of just clarifying a lot of words with Betty [Wilson] that is very involved in the language program through the school. She quite often phones to clarify this word, or how can you phrase this or how do you say this in this context or whatever. So I have quite a bit of involvement and input into that area. Just for their own documentation with the school, so she records it in the orthography style of writing. But for myself it’s really hard, because I don’t understand the orthography, and that translation. And I think it’s really important to the people that know the orthography, like Betty and Gail [Blaney] and Karen Galligos and Marion Harry – they have a good understanding of the orthography. So they’re the main ones that have really learned that, or trying to learn it to be able to use it, because the language is really difficult to document. So it helps them, because they know how to read the orthography and how to write that orthography.

“The language is really difficult to document.”

But I don’t, so when I look at the material that I’ve helped put together and worked with different people, like the linguists that come around, and so that’s all written in orthography – when I look at the written work, I have to look at the translation first and, “Oh, that’s the English. Oh, okay. Now I can figure out what that word is.” So in order to carry the language to its fullest and to its best, you pretty much have to be a linguist. To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense, because where the sounds come from, from way back in your throat or through your cheeks or, you know.

“And for a person – our Elders especially – that is not used to having that kind of a contact, it is rude! And so they’d get really mad. “χɑχyɛmot hɛhɛw!” (it’s strange) they’d go, “pɑpqʷosəm!” (your face is being stared at)”

And it’s really difficult teaching it, because when you’re talking to a linguist – and I’ve talked to quite a few different linguists that try to capture the sounds, “Where does that sound come from?” And “Is this syllable – where’s this syllable? How many syllables of that?” And “Can you repeat that again?” And they’re looking right at you and lookin’ at your mouth and so when I slow down and I try to say something in the language, like, oh, just for an example, “sɑymot puhʔəm,” you know? “It’s real windy.” So I just say, “sɑymot puhʔəm!” “Oh! Can you repeat that again?” “sɑy. mot. puh. ʔəm.” You know. So they’re lookin’ at your mouth and studyin’ how your mouth is working. And the Elders had a real hard time with that, the fluent speakers that are now gone: “skʼʷičimot hɛhɛw. pɑpqʷosəm!” (it’s really irritating to be stared at [your face is being stared at]). They’d go like that, ’cause they’re not used to people lookin’ right at their mouth and staring at them, studying their mouth. “Where’s it coming from? Is it coming from the roof of your mouth? Is it coming from the throat or it’s coming from – ?” So they’s studying your mouth, studying your face. And for a person – our Elders especially – that is not used to having that kind of a contact, it is rude! And so they’d get really mad. “χɑχyɛmot hɛhɛw!” (it’s strange) they’d go, “pɑpqʷosəm!” (your face is being stared at). Get really annoyed. Yeah. What are they saying? You could see Agnes and Katherine (Agnes McGee [Elsie’s aunt] and Katherine Blaney), “ɬəχmot hɛhɛw!” (it is very bad). Gettin’ mad. And the body language tells you they’re annoyed, and the tone of their voice. So it’s time-consuming. It takes a lot of your time and a lot of patience.

How Our Ancestors Communicated

So it’s really hard. I really would like to see the language stay alive. But the reality? I don’t know if it’s possible. Because a lot of the words that we used in my grandparents’ time, and my great-grandparents’ time, the language they used is so different from how it’s used today, even to the fluent speakers. A lot of words are not used, so consequently that’s not passed on. Because of the different activities, different lifestyle. What tools they used for going clam digging or going fishing or gaffing fish at the river, or going hunting or setting the branches out to gather herring roe. What kind of branch – all these things have names and titles that we don’t have today. We don’t do those activities anymore. Sure, we go clam digging. We get a shovel and go down there. Well, people didn’t have a shovel a long time ago, so they used something else. So all of those things are like past history, how do you begin to document that? And even myself, I’m forgetting a lot of those old, old words, those old terms. And Dave Dominick is the only one that I know now that remembers all of those. If I’m really stuck I’ll talk to him and say, “What do you call this?” Just like that he’ll give me that word. He hasn’t forgotten. So that’s really something, that he hasn’t forgotten. ’Cause he grew up with his grandparents, and he grew up around Bill Mitchell and losɛʔ and all of those older people from north of here.

And they travelled a lot. So he knows all the place names of every little bay and every little point and inlet and mountains and rivers and creeks. He still knows that today! And animals! And birds. It just amazes me. He’s never stuck. He may sometimes have to think a little bit, but he’ll come back and tell you, “When you were asking me this, I remember now. This is what it is.” Yeah, so that’s real precious – precious stuff. How can you capture all his knowledge? He’s like a dictionary. And he’s getting elderly, and he had a lot of health problems. So you don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him. But he’ll willingly tell you when he’s good and ready. He’ll tell you. If you ask him in a nice way, he’ll tell you.

And he would be another one that would not sit still to be interviewed, and it’ll be hard to get him to co-operate and expect him to sit still and, “How many syllables was that?” and “How do you form your mouth?” and “Where does that sound come from?” Yeah, so as much as I’m concerned about keeping the language alive, I don’t see it as a reality. And my reality is how my Elders spoke to each other and one another. That’s the reality. I don’t see young people having that kind of language or communication.

But I feel it’s important to have some of it documented, or as much as we can. And it’s important for the young people to know that was how our ancestors communicated. That was their lifestyle. That was what they did. So somewhere along the way – if it’s possible to have that preserved, so that one day, my great-great-grandchildren – or hundred years from now someone will look at it and find it really interesting. You know, that was our ancestors, and that was how they lived. And it would be really, really interesting a hundred years from now for people then, it’s almost like if you forget the language and the culture, you came from nowhere. That’s what forms your identity: your roots, your culture. So I continue as much as possible to be involved and share what I know. And like I said, I’m forgetting a lot of the old, old words anymore, or the names of the birds and stuff like that. Yeah. So it’s dying off and dying off, bits and pieces, so slowly. There are other people here in the community that – very few that can still speak – maybe as a couple, man and wife, they talk back and forth to one another using the language. But even some people at that age, maybe the ones that spent a lot of time away from families, have forgotten, or they lost it through the system. They lost it through time.

Conversing with Fluent Speakers

But it’s a real neat language, and it’s so much fun. I used to have a lot of fun talking to Agnes, and Katherine, and Mary George. And Honoré used to get a kick out of this. I guess he just listens, ’cause I don’t pay attention myself the way he does about how we converse with one another. He’d say, “You know” – he’s pointing this out to me – “Agnes and Katherine, Marion, you, you’re talking. You’re having a conversation, and you switch over to English, and you all switch over in English, and then you switch back to the language and –” but we unconsciously do that. Why do we do that? You know, it’s like – certain words. And instead of really sticking to just the language, ’cause we were all fluent together. And even amongst themselves, you know, Agnes and Mary, Agnes and Katherine, and she would talk in English to Katherine, and more Agnes than Katherine, right? Yeah.

“You’re having a conversation, and you switch over to English, and you all switch over in English, and then you switch back to the language.”

But they were fun ladies together, ’cause they made baskets together and – yeah. I think I was telling that story about how Katherine thought Agnes could understand Inuit language? They were sitting on the couch at Agnes’s there, and of course they’re doing basket, right? They have the TV on. And APTN is on. Agnes used to like to watch that. So, what do you call the – dubbed? – subtitle. Yeah, subtitle. Agnes, I guess, is watching. Of course Katherine’s there. Yeah. So she’s telling Katherine what’s going on: “Oh, it’s interesting,” going on and on. And so Katherine looks at her real puzzled. Agnes is explaining, but they’re talking, but you could hear them talking, but you don’t understand, so it’s subtitles. So Agnes is able to read. She was good at reading – she was good.

And Katherine said, “χɑχyɑmot hɛhɛw ʔɑʔǰuθmɛtʌčxʷ.” She said, “Do you understand – you know their language?” And Agnes looks at her, and you know how Agnes used to crack up. And she laughed! You could see her throw back her head and laugh. So she had quite a time explaining that to Katherine: “No! nɑmɛt tiyʔtɑ – nɑnɑmɛt tiyʔtɑ!” “It’s written there! I’m reading it.” [laughs hard] Oh, that was hilarious. So I went there to visit, and they were both laughing. And Katherine says, “χɑχyɑmot hɛhɛw.” She said, “hɛhɛw χɑχyɑmot nɛʔɛt č gɑ ʔɑǰuθ Agnes tʼᶿɛtʼᶿitʼᶿoǰus!” (It’s strange – I thought Agnes understood their language – she’s crazy!) They were a pair, those two! I could see Katherine being real serious, too. [laughs] They’re hilarious. They were so hilarious, those two!

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