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Critically endangered Okanagan First Nations language preserved in new book

The Syilx Language House's Ninth Elders book will feature Grouse Barnes, Victor Antoine, Theresa Terbasket, Herman Edward, and Thomas Pierre.
Image Credit: Syilx Language House, Press Release

The critically endangered n?syilxcn? language is being immortalized in the Syilx Language House’s ninth book of elder stories.

The book, containing stories from multiple fluent elders from across the Syilx territory, will be released on Friday, Dec. 1.

“I'm part Syilx and when I first moved back to the territory I learned from the elders and the speakers that the language was critically endangered and that it was very important,” Michele Johnson, director of the Syilx Language House, told “Of all the many things that Syilx people aren't agreed on, this was the one thing that everybody unanimously agreed on. That the language was vitally important and that it was critically endangered.”

READ MORE: Saving the syilx language in the Okanagan

Johnson took her first courses in n'syilxcn? at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton which inspired her work to sustain the language.

“I chose this as my life path and also as my role and responsibility as a mixed race person who was part Syilx,” she said.

All of the elders' books are freely available on the Language House website. They're also available in Okanagan libraries, the Okanagan College library and the UBC Okanagan library.

“The elders have expressly given their consent and made their wish known that they want the language shared with everybody,” Johnson said. “We really believe in sharing and inclusivity.”

There are fewer than 40 fluent elders remaining so the recordings of their stories are vital to the longevity of the n'syilxcn? language. As part of its mission, the Language House has also been running an intensive adult fluency program since 2015.

READ MORE: Keeping the Nsyilxc?n' language alive in the Okanagan

“The students as well as the teachers have found intensive study of their language, stories and way of being to be transformational, uplifting, healing and fills a piece of themselves they often didn’t know was missing,” reads a Language House press release.

Currently, 30 students and teachers meet for daily online classes. The Language House also hosts occasional evening lessons for the wider community and partners with various community organizations to share the language which traditionally spans southern BC and northern Washington state.

“The language connects us to the land and to each other as speakers, and is healing to us as people,” Johnson said in the release.

READ MORE: ‘Beautiful to witness’: Syilx Language House cohort showcases knowledge at virtual event

“We really want to let everybody know that we are not the last word on the subject. There's a lot of different ways of learning and teaching language,” Johnson said. “And we're really proud to be one of those ways to learn and teach language. We're really proud to work with these fluent elders who entrust us to type up and share their stories.”

A book launch will be hosted by the Language House, Dec. 1, at Okanagan College in Vernon. The event will take place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and all participants are welcome.

The language house also encourages locals to learn ten words of n'syilxcn?. Those who wish to learn the words can do so by contacting:

More information on the Syilx Language House is available on its website here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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