SENĆOŦEN for settlers: Vancouver Island First Nation brings language and culture online
Eric Pelkey constantly hears the question: how do you pronounce yourself WSÁNEĆ?
The South Vancouver Island First Nation Community Engagement Coordinator is not the only one.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people, to a lot of communities in our territories, and we seem to be telling them the same things over and over again,” Pelkey said. Radio-Canada on the island host Gregor Craigie.
The website includes tips on territorial thanks, recommended reading, and video resources.
But most importantly for Pelkey, there is a guide on how to pronounce the very land that the First Nations share with the settlers.
“We like to promote the correct pronunciation of the names of our peoples, the names of places in our territory,” he says, noting a long history of linguistic exclusion.
“That’s actually where the name Saanich comes from. The settlers couldn’t pronounce W̱SÁNEĆ, so they changed it to Saanich.”
Over a century of colonization and residential school policies have taken their toll on the WSÁNEĆ language, SENĆOŦEN.
SENĆOŦEN is part of the Coast Salish language group that is written primarily in a capital alphabet, created only by a member of the community in the 1970s to express syllable subtleties.
Today there are less than a dozen fluent speakers and just over 100 semi-fluent speakers.
But over the past decade, the First Nation has revived the language, publishing a dictionary and creating courses for its members.
Pelkey says expanding resources to non-Indigenous audiences is driven not by frustration, but by real demand.
“There is a general thirst for knowledge about our people and our language,” he says.
Pelkey cites the battle to rename Mount Douglas to PKOLS as a spark of public interest. But he says he has also received inquiries about the WSÁNEĆ language and culture from tourists and curious people as far away as Germany and Japan.
He says the elders have led this initiative, not only as an educational resource, but as another step towards reconciliation.
“I’ve seen a lot of racism, you know, and I feel like now people are getting more educated and better informed,” Pelkey said.
“It creates a better understanding between us, of what we have really lost and where we would like to go as a people.”
On the island8:24Teaching settlers to pronounce the SENCOTEN language