In the fall of last year, it was on a long drive with his wife Nx̌astatkʷ (Elizabeth Bent)when author and illustrator Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n (Levi Bent) says he came up with the idea for his first book, stim aʔ ckistxʷ what do you do?
“This is the first book or any kind of book I’ve ever done, whether it’s children or adults. This is the first,” he says.
The couple were bouncing ideas off each other, Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n adds, inspiring him to try something completely new.
The children’s book teaches some basics of Nsyilxcən, the Syilx language, and presents ideas for contemporary and traditional activities for each of the four seasons. It was published on July 10.
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says he already knew how to draw, and has been learning and teaching Nsyilxcen for 12 years at the En’owkin NAPAT Program and the Syilx Language House. He explains there is a lot of repetition in the language, which can be difficult to learn. So the book is meant to engage children’s minds and encourage them to start using the language in a fun way.
“I am trying to take our culture and our language and just make it more about joy and happiness and stuff like that, but there’s also a respect in there, too,” says Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n.
He decided to pursue writing, illustrating and publishing his first book with the motivation and encouragement from his family, he says. They always remind him, “You can do it, your drawings are rad.”
The book includes English and Nsyilxcən translations, and an audio CD of Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n narrating for anyone who wants to listen and learn how to speak Nsyilxcən.
Meet the author
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n, who prefers to be addressed by his Indigneous name, explains that Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n translates to “blue wings” in Nsyilxcən. He says his name was given to him by his godfather.
“I like my Indigenous name, it has a meaning,” says Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n. “Levi – people just think of pants or maybe from the Bible, but there’s not much meaning. I don’t know what a ‘Levi’ translates to in English, but Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n is very specific as to what that is and it holds more meaning and value in my mind, in my heart.”
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n is a Lower Similkameen Indian Band member, with Syilx Okanagan and Québécois ancestry. He says he developed a passion for learning Nsyilxcən shortly after he moved to Penticton 14 years ago from Okanogan, Wash., not far from his hometown in Malott.
The author and illustrator says he loves to spend time with his family, going out on the land harvesting their Indigenous foods, while speaking the Syilx language to his three children, Chante, Leroi and Julia.
“I’m a person who really loves their culture and language and does the best I can to sort of bring that back into everyday life and make it a big part of our life now. Not just, like, leave it in the shadows or leave it behind, but to continue it and I’m proud to be a Syilx person,” he says.
Finding a personal connection
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says he began writing his children’s book in early March, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He adds that he wrote the book because he likes to draw caricature art and wanted it to appeal to children with the vibrant colours and fun playful images, making the Syilx language more intriguing.
He says his intentions behind the book and its title are to get readers to ask themselves: “What do you do all the time? … What do I do in each year’s season?”
“When it’s spring, as Indigenous people, we have a responsibility to harvest the foods that are available from our ancestors. So it makes you think, I should be out there, digging roots, sitting with my grandma or grandpa,” he says.
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says he believes Indigenous Peoples are connected to the land in a seasonal way, and he wanted to showcase that you can have a balance of contemporary and traditional lifestyles while being an holistic person.
He explains that part of his inspiration came from not seeing enough modern stories in his language, as most Syilx stories are lessons and teaching from the Syilx oral histories.
“Not to be too one-sided, or too one-sided the other way,” says Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n.
“When the seasons change, our activities change, and that’s true for contemporary people, too. So I wanted to do a book that showcased each season and there’s two contemporary activities and two traditional activities for each season.”
The book includes four drawings representing each season. Each illustration features a different animal, following the repetition of the phrase “stim aʔ ckistxʷ what do you do?”
“There are animals on every page,” says Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n. “So when you’re reading this to your child, you can ask, ‘Do you see the swan?’ And you know, kids like to find things and they’ll point to the swan and say, ‘Yeah, it’s right here.’”
Each character in the book is gender-neutral, as Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n explains he wanted to create a story in which all of his characters can be seen enjoying a range of activities, not defined by gender-based roles.
“The writing part was more of a passion I have for this language,” he says. “It’s a very simple book, but it’s still showing that, you know, our language is valid now as it is ever was and it will always be, so that’s kind of the direction I was taking the book.”
Overcoming challenges with family support
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says his wife and their three children were his biggest support team, encouraging him to persevere or, in the words of Nx̌astatkʷ, “get it done.”
They remained his motivation, he says, as he felt his self-esteem challenged while illustrating the book, and was questioning if his drawings were good enough.
“It’s not easy,” he says. “I’m not very organized and it’s hard to sit down and just draw, draw, draw all day. I guess the hardest part is thinking, ‘Can I get it done?’”
“My wife, she’s the one that sort of helped me with most of everything, and if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I’d have finished it.”
Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says he also received support from First Peoples Cultural Council, as noted in his book, through a grant providing additional funding for the publication.
“They’re the ones who supported me, gave me the time to do this. So I’d like to say thank you to the First Peoples,” Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n says. “And then the Elders helped me with the language, you know, like if I have a question they’re always there, which is really great.”
He says his advice, then, is to find good support that will help you face any challenges head on.
“On your road trips, or wherever you go to get your ideas, write your idea down or have somebody there to capture your ideas. If you’re super self-motivated, you don’t need any of my advice, but if you’re like me, have good support, have good people in your corner and have them help you out.”
If you wish to purchase a copy and support Qʷyqʷʕayáx̌n (Levi Bent), email Nx̌astatkʷ (Elizabeth Bent) here: [email protected]