During the start of most school days, the 28 grade 10-12 students in Ladysmith Senior Secondary's (LSS) Language and Land-based Learning program greet teachers and classmates with 'uy'netulh! and 'Ich 'o' 'uy' 'ul' - 'good morning' and 'how are you?' in hul'qumi'num. Listening to First Nations and non-First Nations students speak the ancient language is thrilling for teacher William Taylor and his hul'qumi'num-language teaching partner and Snuneymux First Nation elder, Mandy Jones, who have both worked hard to ensure each student receives a rich, hands-on understanding of Coast Salish culture and language.
The class - Mandy Jones' and William Taylor’s creation - marries Coast Salish traditions and teachings with the hul'qumi'num language by linking hul'qumi'num words or phrases with various objects, actions, greetings and expressions. It's just one of the many ways Jones and Taylor connect their students with First Nations culture.
Fundamental to the course is the First Nations concept of walking together in two worlds - First Nations and non-First Nations - and naut'sa Mawt - working together - in a First People's way. Naut'sa mawt is an important concept in Coast Salish culture. It's focused on communities working together as equals toward a common goal.
"The idea behind this class is to bring First Nation and non-First Nation students together within a Coast Salish context, as explained to us by Mandy Jones," says William Taylor. "There are various levels of understanding. Some of our students bring with them a rich Salish cultural knowledge, and some don't. Part of the idea of naut'sa mawt is first creating a sense of family and belonging so that people feel safe and ready to participate - then we can discover people's strengths and look for leadership opportunities to allow each person in our group to lead and teach us something."
As a hul'qumi'num teacher for the past two decades, Mandy Jones is dedicated to showing her students how her culture and language walk together hand in hand by stressing the notions of respect, sharing, and growing and learning together as one.
"It's been so meaningful to bring back our old ways of teaching, going back to the basics of learning and oral traditions," says Jones. "Every day I talk about our teachings and traditions, and I really focus on the importance of showing respect for our land, water, air and one another."
Much of Jones' knowledge was passed down to her by her grandmother, such as the various steps necessary for processing wool, including washing, carding, weaving and knitting. Students recently processed 19 bundles of donated fleece at an outdoor location near Transfer Beach and are currently learning how to spin and weave the wool using looms. Eventually, the wool will be transformed into a large 'reconciliation blanket' that will be displayed at the school. The plan is for each LSS student to participate in the creation of the blanket.
Currently in his second year of the Language and Land-based Learning program, 17 year old Amos Harris has also learned much about his Coast Salish culture from his grandmother, who like Mandy Jones, is a Hul'qumi'num language teacher (Jones is also like a surrogate grandmother to Harris). The experiences he's received through the course have brought him even closer to his culture and allowed him to share his family's traditions, teachings and language with non-First Nations classmates, such as exchange students from Germany and Brazil who participated in the class during its first year.
"It was amazing watching non-First Nations students learning about my culture, speaking the language, and taking it home with them to their families," says Harris. "Introducing them to our traditions gave me such a great feeling - and now, we are good friends."
Beatrix Taylor, a non-First Nations grade 10 student currently in her first year in the program, has also gained a richer appreciation for Coast Salish culture and language by learning about it firsthand. She agrees that the class has created common threads between First Nations and non-First Nations students and provided new connections for students who previously didn’t know one another.
"I have learned more about First Nations' perspectives and how First Nations students have felt about school in general," she explains. "We can always do more to improve, but the class is a good start toward bringing students in our school closer together."
As the program gathers momentum, William Taylor and Mandy Jones continue looking for ways to excite and engage their students about First Nations culture while also sharing the program and its teachings with others. In addition to learning about wool processing, the class has explored Coast Salish cooking, carving, traditional medicines, and cedar weaving. Students also took part in The Elder Project, where First Nations elders and youth participate in meaningful dialogues, with the youth drawing upon those conversations to write pieces for a book of poetry.
"The key to the work we are doing is starting as locally as possible here on Stz'uminus territory and then fanning out to include more of our First Nations population to generate that understanding between First Nations and non-First Nations people," says Taylor. "This includes displaying various Coast Salish student-led projects in the lobby of our school, producing a play in hul'qumi'num and presenting it at the end of May to schools from Qualicum to the Cowichan Valley, and hosting a language symposium with School District 68 at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo."
Mandy Jones hopes that this ripple effect will not only make people more aware of the importance of First Nations culture, but also serve to revitalize the declining hul'qumi'num language.
"What better way to accomplish this than through our kids?" she asks. "It's difficult to see our language decline, but with programs like the Language and Land-based Learning class, hul'qumi'num
and Coast Salish culture can come alive again."