Hul’q’umi’num program at Nanaimo Ladysmith schools teaches students to ‘walk in this world with gratitude’

“When we learn Indigenous languages we are better able to understand all our plant and animal relatives,” says former director of Indigenous learning, Ted Cadwallader.

There is a well-known idiom that when people speak the same language they understand one another’s opinions, values and beliefs. And that that understanding in turn leads to greater respect.

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools (NLPS) is embracing both the literal and figurative interpretation of that idiom. Which is why 20 elementary schools and five high schools across the district currently get the gift of a certified language teacher fluent in Hul’q’umi’num each week. 

It is “a thin layer” of language learning at this point, admits education consultant Ted Cadwallader who is of Tlingit ancestry and served as the district’s director of instruction and Indigenous learning from 2018 to 2021. 

But he believes that by getting people to start thinking in an Indigenous language, their interactions with not only each other but the world as a whole will change for the better. 

“The language of the land and our animal relatives was here long before people came. The land taught Indigenous people. When we learn Indigenous languages we are better able to understand all our plant and animal relatives, and we learn to walk in this world with gratitude,” he says. 

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“If students know some of the language, they know some of the stories, and as a consequence, they will perhaps make different decisions than their predecessors when they become adults in positions of influence.”

There are challenges that come with teaching an Indigenous language within a structure that has not historically made space for it. As Cadwallader acknowledges, “English is noun- or thing-based, and is taught structurally, whereas Indigenous methodology is to teach language while doing something together, for instance when knitting, canning fish, walking or carving. It is about making things together, then teaching gratitude by giving away what was made.”

Hul’q’umi’num students Sheldon Harris and Gary George hold up drums at Ladysmith Secondary School as part of the Land and Language-based Learning program.
Hul’q’umi’num students Sheldon Harris and Gary George hold up drums at Ladysmith Secondary School as part of the Land and Language Based Learning program. Photo by Kerith Waddington/The Discourse

Teachers of Hul’q’umi’num have students engage in activities while learning together, preferably outside in connection with the land. This is often referred to as “place-based learning.” 

Teacher and Elder yutustana:t (Mandy Jones) of Snuneymuxw First Nation has been teaching Hul’q’umi’num at Ladysmith Secondary School (LSS) for close to 10 years now, and in the district as a whole for 30. 

She says teaching her language to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike “is amazing, given that only a generation ago I did not feel free to speak Hul’q’umi’num, let alone use my proper name.”

Repetition of pronunciation — in song and storytelling — is a large part of yutustana:t’s teaching strategy; she acknowledges that Hul’q’umi’num has many glottal sounds that speakers of English are not familiar with. (A glottal sound is a sound made by briefly closing up the glottis, the space between your vocal cords. This is the sound in the middle of the English word “uh-oh.” A glottal stop is actually heard as a moment of silence between sounds when it is in the middle of the word).

William Taylor, who team teaches the Land and Language Based Learning program with yutustana:t in the classroom, expounds on the idea of place-based learning.

“We can’t teach language as a thing separate from culture or land, they are intertwined,” he says. “Providing our students with the chance for hands-on activities wakes the language up, brings it alive.”

LSS student Ryler Morgan agrees. 

“In class, I enjoy spinning wool, and I have created a map with Indigenous place names,” he says. “Both those activities have really connected me to First Nations culture.”

Classmate Annika Scholefield goes further.

“I loved learning how to put hide on a drum,” she says, which is q’uwut in Hul’q’umi’num. “Having grown up in the colonial system, one thing I really appreciate about this class is that we sit in a circle. There is no hierarchy. We all have equal worth and all our opinions are important. This class makes the school seem less like an institution and more like a house.”

Other activities the students engage in include weaving and woodcarving. 

One student, who works with strips of cedar, says he approaches it as a sacred being that has its own life. 

Another student says she wrote a poem, then translated it into Hul’q’umi’num.

Related: At this Indigenous Elders’ literacy circle, survivors find healing

Ladysmith Secondary Student Ryler Morgan holds a drum in Language and Land based Learning
Ladysmith Secondary Student Ryler Morgan says activities like spinning wools connect him to First Nations culture. Photo by Kerith Waddington

Cadwallader is proud of the NLPS, which he says is leading the charge provincially in terms of initiatives that forward reconciliation. 

NLPS has offered an online Speaker Series since 2020 that focuses on Indigenous perspectives and educational initiatives in the district, which are available to view online

This district-wide transformation started in 2014 when the Ministry of Education revised and updated the curriculum to include Indigenous Knowledge in the classroom, particularly the histories and worldviews of Inuit, Métis and First Nations peoples. 

After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their Calls to Action in 2015, NLPS adopted reconciliation as one of their four main district goals. Subsequently, they developed the Syeyutsus Reconciliation Framework, a policy designed to share the collective responsibility in leading this work.

Syeyutsus [see-YA-yut-sus] is a Hul’q’umi’num word which can be interpreted as “walking in two worlds.” It encapsulates the idea of living in and honouring the teachings of the land and First Peoples, while navigating the ever-changing complexities of today’s world and society. Achieving balance between Indigenous and western traditions in decision making is its objective. 

The policy goes on to state that NLPS commits to using this framework to guide and inform them as they work with all parties in a spirit of respect and courage. 

Cadwallader, who previously served as the director of Indigenous education for the B.C. Ministry of Education, is proud that in June 2019 the professional standards for B.C. educators were updated. Not only were existing standards updated to reflect current terminology, but an additonal standard was added that honours the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This new standard carries with it the expectation that educators in what has been briefly known as British Columbia work toward reconciliation and healing, and that they acknowledge “the history and ongoing contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis.” 

Although the success of these initiatives can and will be measured in many ways, Cadwallader puts it most succinctly. 

“The land and its resources are the cornerstone of our connectivity,” he says. “I believe that if we can get non-Indigenous people to walk more thoughtfully on this territory, we can change the trajectory of the planet and we will have done something good. We are all relations in the cycle of life.” [end]

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