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The language keeper: the last fluent Halq’eméylem speaker teaches a new generation

This story is the first in our ongoing series about Halq’eméylem and the people working to save it. Find the others here:

It started in the cradle.

From her infancy, Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips was enveloped in the sounds of Halq’eméylem. And despite hardships that forced many Indigenous children to lose their language, she never forgot it.

Today, Siyamiyateliyot is the last fully fluent speaker of Halq’eméylem—the upriver dialect of Halkomelem, which was heard from Yale to Vancouver Island.

As a child, she listened to her family translate conversations they had with an Indian Agent. As a youth, she stood alone at St. Mary’s Residential School, thinking in Halq’eméylem. As a young adult, she became an honourary elder. And as a senior, she was awarded an honourary doctorate and an Indigenous achievement award for her efforts to preserve the language for the next generation.

​But Siyamiyateliyot isn’t done yet. Today, she continues to help young speakers learn their language, and is even working to update the vocabulary for the modern age.

She grew up surrounded by Halq’eméylem.

Siyamiyateliyot was born in 1939 in the Cheam First Nation’s main village—Chiyó:m in Halq’eméylem, “always wild strawberries.” But her mother died giving birth, and her father was alone and already had several children to care for. (Then, as now, Indigenous women died in childbirth at a far higher rate than other Canadians.)

“Whenever I cried, all the siblings would cry,” she said. So her father took the infant to Seabird Island, across the river, and entrusted her to an aunt, Mary Peters. Mary and her husband Edmund Joe Peters spoke Halq’eméylem to each other, to others, and to the growing Siyamiyateliyot.

“That’s the very beginning of my Halq’eméylem—right from the cradle, you would say.”

In those days, Halq’eméylem wasn’t as endangered as it is today. Siyamiyateliyot remembers Mary, whom she regarded as her mother, speaking to storekeepers in Halq’eméylem as she shopped. She remembered the Peters speaking Chilexwqel, the trade language that acted as a bridge between Halq’eméylem and English. And she remembered Edmund Joe needing to translate conversations from English into Halq’eméylem for Mary, who did not speak English.

But residential schools did their best to remove the language entirely.

In 1947, Siyamiyateliyot was brought by train to St. Mary’s Residential School, located 50 kilometres away from her home on Seabird Island.

“I have witnessed abuse because [the other students] did not know English at the school,” she said about her time at the school. She remembered feeling lucky—lucky because she could already speak English.

But she was lonely. She thought about her parents. And she did so in Halq’eméylem.

By the time she left St. Mary’s in 1954 as a teenager, many of the other students had lost their languages. But Siyamiyateliyot had not, thanks to those many hours standing alone and thinking.

She had no way of knowing that her schoolgirl determination would be so integral in saving her in years to come. And it would be two decades later that she was honoured for it.

At that time, the Union of BC Chiefs had taken over the former Coqualeetza Residential School and the development of a cultural education and training centre. By 1974, elders from Yale to Katzie had joined the centre in the Coqualeetza Elders Group, where they gathered each Wednesday to share their culture and their language.

Siyamiyateliyot went each week with her mother—who still only spoke Halq’eméylem—to translate on her behalf. She became such an integral part of the group that she was named an honourary elder in her early 30s.

“My husband Albert drove us there because sometimes I had to translate whatever mum said,” Siyamiyateliyot said. “So that’s how come, later on, the elders more or less insisted Albert and I become elders.”

The gatherings evolved to include recordings of Halq’eméylem words, and the elders decided how to write down the language for the first time. As the years went on, Siyamiyateliyot began to explore other ways to preserve the language.

Her daughter, Siyameqwot Vivian Williams, also joined her on the journey.

In her youth, Siyameqwot wanted to take a Halq’eméylem teachers course, to build on the lessons she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. She spoke to the then-Chief of the Skwah First Nation about her ambitions.

“The Chief of Skwah just said—these were his words: just let the language die. That’s what he said. ‘Who are you going to speak to? Just let the language die,’” Siyameqwot remembered.

But it hasn’t.

It was the effort of Siyamiyateliyot and other elders that stopped the language from dying completely. Although Halq’eméylem is still considered an endangered language, the number of new speakers is growing. Now, Siyamiyateliyot is continuing work with academics and community members to ensure it stays that way.

In 2005 she recorded a conversation with fellow Halq’eméylem speaker Xwoyalemot Tillie Gutierrez to show linguists how Halq’eméylem sounds in a natural setting. In 2016, she allowed researchers to perform ultrasounds on her mouth while she was speaking, to better explain how the muscles moved to make certain sounds.

The work hasn’t always been easy. Once the youngest in a group of fluent Halq’eméylem speakers, Siyamiyateliyot is now the only one left. (Gutierrez died in 2011 at the age of 89. You can read about her life here.) Although she is able to have conversations with her daughter, it doesn’t flow the way it did with the elders who are now gone.

“We’re having a conversation, and then she would say, ‘Mom, what was that word?’ And she’d write it down,” Siyamiyateliyot said about her daughter. Then she stopped and laughed.

Siyameqwot, who was sitting beside her, nodded.

“Every day I’m with her, I hear a new word. I record it,” she said. “So I do treasure her because without her I wouldn’t know this new word. And because of her, it’s recorded that there is a word.”

That is another challenge for Siyamiyateliyot. Now in her 80s, it is now up to her to help transition Halq’eméylem into the new age—and that means figuring out translations for things like math terms.

It’s something she does on Wednesdays now—the same day she used to sit with the elders and think about the language.

Sitting down with a long list of words, Siyamiyateliyot opens an English dictionary. (A Xwelítem dictionary as she calls it.) She finds and examines the first English word. She looks at related words. She thinks about the root of the word and what it means. Then, she imagines what the word would truly mean from a Stó:lō perspective.

Despite her age, Siyamiyateliyot doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. She is, after all, a large part of why so many Stó:lō people are able to continue learning their language today.

This year, Siyamiyateliyot was recognized for more than 50 years of work to preserve Halq’eméylem for future generations with an Indspire award, one of the highest honours Indigenous communities in Canada can bestow on their own people. She was celebrated in a nationally televised ceremony in late June.

But the award isn’t just for her, Siyamiyateliyot said.

It also honours the work of all the elders who came before her, and the ones who will come after.

“The place that I have gotten to be, I could not get there on my own,” she said. “That’s how I look at it. There’s no way I could get to where I was put, on my own.”

“And they all have ones who are learning,” she said, “and they will be the future teachers.”

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