Visiting the K’ómoks First Nation: The Importance of Language

UVic is full of amazing opportunities for students, and there are many which seem to hide in plain sight. This past summer, I had the opportunity to explore one of these opportunities – learning about Salish languages in Linguistics 401.

ʔay̓aǰuθəm is traditionally spoken by the K’ómoks First Nation

When I showed up for the first day of the class, I learned that I would have to create a language teaching video for a language that I didn’t speak a word of. Ok, sounds hard, but doable. But there was a twist – not only did I not speak the language, but neither did anyone else!

Here was the challenge I was presented with: create a video that would teach some words in the island dialect of ʔay̓aǰuθəm (pronounced eye-uhh-juu-eth-em), which is a Salish language traditionally spoken by the K’ómoks First Peoples.

The last fluent speaker of the island dialect of ʔay̓aǰuθəm, Mrs. Mary Clifton, had passed away in 1995, just three months shy of her 95th birthday. Luckily, I had access to audio recordings of Mrs. Clifton, created by linguist Herbert R. Harris in the 1970’s. The tapes were grainy, but at least it was something!

Mary Clifton was the last fluent speaker of Island Comox, also known as ʔay̓aǰuθəm.

As I started working with these recordings, I realized I was being entrusted with something tremendously special. Here was the voice of an Elder, the last fluent speaker of a dialect that is now endangered, and I was being asked to create a resource that might one day help teach the very people to whom it belonged.

I held in my hands a treasure, a piece of someone else’s culture. The pressure was immense. But eventually, I felt like I was growing closer to Mrs. Clifton through her voice, and my appreciation for the gift of her recordings grew.

As a class, we created language teaching videos as well as a transcript of the recordings, and sent them off to the K’ómoks First Nation. Over reading break, I had the amazing opportunity to drive up to Courtney to follow up with the community.

Tiffany Gee is the Youth Coordinator for the K’ómoks First Nation and is, I was thrilled to learn, a relative of Mrs. Mary Clifton.

Traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation

I had so many questions! She was kind enough to not only answer them, but to give me a tour.

When I asked Tiffany about why language learning is so important, she was very quick to answer. She reminded me that there is a close tie between language and culture. Her words reflected the truth of history – that her great-grandparents had access to their language and culture, and some of her grandparents did as well, but her parents were denied their own culture, and so she never had the opportunity to learn about her own history.

Tiffany was determined that her own children would have every opportunity to learn. She told me that the community desperately wants more resources, but they are few and far between – lost to history and the legacy of residential schools. A few memory boxes remain, as well as the traditional longhouse, but not much else.

The community is building itself from the ground up. The videos we created in class, along with a transcript of the recordings, were invaluable. When I gave her the copy of the transcript, she started to tear up because she was so excited.

The cultural centre of the K’ómoks First Nation

Meeting with Tiffany made me realize that the small part I played in the revitalization of ʔay̓aǰuθəm is maybe not so small after all.

The community is having to almost start from scratch. They have no fluent speakers to teach them their own language, and very few Elders who can pass on lessons. They are having to do much of the work themselves.

The videos and transcripts are gifts, packaged up by UVic students, and sent off with all the respect in the world. As a UVic student, I had the opportunity to participate in something amazing, that is having a tremendous impact on a community.

If you are interested in taking LING 401, the only prerequisite is third year standing!

If you want more information on the K’ómoks First Nation, visit their website here.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this post where I will share more of my thoughts on my visit!

This is the video I made. It is intended to teach nature words in ʔay̓aǰuθəm to preschool-aged children. Enjoy!

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2 Responses

  1. Beth Regehr says:

    Hi Isabel, I live in the Comox Valley, part of the unceded traditional territory of the K’omoks First Nation. I am not a member of the K’omoks First Nation, but just a Canadian interested in reconciliation and language. I have just begun looking for resources about the K’omoks language and came across your post. I didn’t know that the language was close to lost so appreciate your efforts to resurrect it. I watched your video for pre-schoolers (even though I am about 59 years out of pre-school!) and think it is a good starting point. Can you recommend some other resources to help a layperson begin learning how this language works? I live near North Island College so perhaps it’s library would help me as well. Cheers and good luck with your studies!