When Lisa Sambo, the Director of the N’Quatqua Child and Family Development Centre, returned last June to her home in D’Arcy, she was carrying medicine for her community and a big bundle of overwhelm. The 1,000-person conference on Indigenous language revitalization knew this was the fate of language champions and revivers—that the mountain feels impossibly high, or, as keynote speaker Dr. Lorna Williams would later share at the UN Conference in Paris, “the work is like trying to put together a mirror that has been shattered into a million pieces.”
Sambo also learned at HELISET TŦE SK´ÁL that one of the top five things you can do to revitalize your language is to learn a greeting and use it with everyone you meet. She committed to try this one thing.
She is not a fluent speaker. Her mother lost her language and culture at residential school. So, Sambo opened the First Voices language app, and copied out the greetings on sticky notes, and stuck them to the surfaces all around her desk. Áma Sq’it! Good day. Kúkwstum’ckacw. Thank you. K’alhwá7alap? How are you folks?
She began to use an Ucwalmícwts greeting when she answered the phone. “No one knew I was looking at my cheat sheets,” she said. The telephone didn’t have caller ID—she couldn’t screen—she greeted people in Ucwalmícwts without discriminating. “I’d fumble the phrases like a toddler.”
She’d hear an awkward pause at the other end of the line, a “maybe I dialled the wrong number” pause. Or she’d hear a response from a St’át’imcets person—"Ay.” (Meaning yes, all right!) Or she’d hear something else in the pause, in the space between what can be said, and what is actually said … Shame. Sadness. A longing. A lament. And she’d breathe into that.
A gentle woman, she’d talk to herself gently, trying to coax her wild self out of its corner: You’re building a muscle. She’d allow her pronunciation to be corrected. She’d listen to the First Voices app over and over again. She kept putting herself out there.
“I started doing it outside the office, around N’Quatqua, with people I know. And then at Lil’wat Gas Station, with people I didn’t already know. Then I started doing it in the Pemberton Valley Grocery store with St’át’imcets elders, and then at Stay Wild, with the people there, because I love them. And when I say, Kúkwstum’ckacw, I am thanking them dearly. So then I felt super brave, because I did it at Stay Wild with sort of strangers … ”
Because she was never just saying hello, it’s good to see you, thank you. She was practising saying, “We are not totally dead and broken and our language is not completely gone.”
There were times her courage faltered. “I’d say hello or thank you in English, and I felt ashamed.” So she’d congratulate herself for noticing that emotion, and kept on coaching: “If you want language to come back, you need to be proud. Let that colonization and intergenerational trauma go.” More breaths.
A year after the conference that gave her her marching orders, Sambo had funding for language work that couldn’t be used in the way initially envisioned, due to COVID-19. The community had been extremely careful, protecting its elders, supporting each other with food, physical distancing, asking non-residents to stay out of the region, keeping apart from each other.
Sambo was missing people. Missing connection. Missing walking with friends and hugging people hello. What if, she thought, we could print a greeting on a T-shirt, and give a T-shirt to every community member, the 200 who live at N’Quatqua and the 200 who live elsewhere. What if they could choose the shirt, the colour, the style, so it looked good and felt good and they’d want to wear it? What if it had no logo, just a greeting? Just a phrase: Áma s7at’sxentsína written on the front of the T-shirt. 'It’s good to see you,' written across the heart.
“And if you read between the lines, it really means, I love you! I’m out of my house! I’d really like to smoosh you with a huge hug. But it’s good to see you,” laughed Sambo. “And the phrase is in the First Voices app, so I’m not setting people up for failure. It’s an invitation to play with it, like kids play with sticks and rocks. And we can make it fun, not heavy or sad or unattainable.”
She imagined this heartfelt greeting: it is good to see you, emblazoned on people’s bodies, all over St’át’imcets territory, prompting people to practice, to fumble, to give voice to a beautiful language that is not dead, not broken, not gone. “I hope it does good things. I hope there’s some healing within St’át’imcets territory, and a sense of pride and playfulness.”
There is a gap that exists between your great ideas, sketched out in your head or on a piece of paper, and societal transformation. Sambo has been sitting in that gap. Each Thursday, she phones Albert at Urstore, where they’d set up the T-shirt offering, to see how many people have ordered their shirt. She has budget to provide a free shirt for 400 community members. But the numbers are low. Albert suggested offering only white ink, to reduce costs. Sambo bounced this idea off a few people. “They were not in favour of this,” she said. “They had taken the time to choose their colours.”
Instead of just giving her a number, Albert sent her a spreadsheet of the T-shirts ordered. “I got to see the names and people’s choices—fabric type, colour, size, ink colour.” It made her smile—see possibility instead of disappointment. Seeing power in the colour choices people had made. She saw the story behind the number … all the stories of people thinking about what they want to write across their hearts, and how.
She spoke with a quiet gentleman who mostly greets her with a nod, and yes, he was interested in her T-shirt offer. They worked through his preferences so she could log his order, as they walked.
What shade of green?
Lime green. With white writing. White for snow. For light. For hope.
A quiet man, not a man of words, Sambo could see his agency, his spirit, in those choices. He is known for going up into the mountains. In that space that she held, Excel spreadsheet on her desk tracking people’s hearts and all the ache and hope they contain, he could step towards that great greeting: it is good to see you. And be seen. “He spoke to me in Ucwalmícwts,” said Sambo. “He told me his Ucwalmícwts name. He expressed sadness that people don’t understand him when he speaks Ucwalmícwts to them.” Perhaps, by wearing the T-shirt, that will give people permission, will be an opening.
In Ucwalmícwts, the word for family, community, gathering and nature is the same: snu’kwnu’kwa7.
The root of that word is nuk: to help and be helped.
That kind of wisdom is something the world needs right now. These are the words we need. That need to be spoken out loud. That warrant all of us fumbling towards.
To read Part 1 of this series, click here.
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