The Lens of Language

Stories are sacred. They are a window into who we are as humans, how we connect, and how we change. At RADIUS, we’ve been thinking about stories of why we do what we do, how we do it, and how we show up as humans to do the work. Please enjoy.

Below is the full transcript of the story. We encourage audiences to listen to the story above through its intended audio medium, and use the transcript as needed. Video captions are also available.

Weytkp re skwest ri7 Candice Day. St̓7ek-ke te St̓úxtews, ell mut-ke ne Penkupé. Ln kyé7e lu7 Nettie MacGee, ell le kí7ces ln kyé7e lu7 Emma Etienne. Ln kic7e lu7 Anne Day. Stet̓7ek te St̓úxtews. Secwépemc-ke, ell ec r xeqpewén̓ewe t̓e Secwepemctsín.

Hello, my name is Candice Day. I am from St̓úxtews (aka Bonaparte), and I live in Vancouver, the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. My (late) grandmother is Nettie MacGee, and her mother is Emma Etienne. My (late) mother is Anne Day. They are from St̓úxtews. I am Secwépemc, and I am learning Secwepemctsín.

I am also the manager of the First Peoples Enterprise Accelerator Program at RADIUS — and for the past eight months, I’ve had the incredible privilege of learning my traditional language in an immersion program at Stsxelmems r Secwépemc in Sexqeltqin, the community of Adams Lake.

I started my language journey in November 2021 when two Elders from my community started beginner classes online. These classes usually take place in person, but because of COVID, they were being offered via Zoom. I’ve referred to these classes as my pandemic silver lining, but they have grown into much more than that.

After 8 months of meeting every Tuesday and Thursday evening, our online classes took a hiatus for the summer. And within a week of that last class, my brother passed along a poster for a language immersion program. The program took place in the Secwépemc community of Sexqeltqin (aka Adams Lake). It would require moving to the interior, reducing my workload to part-time, and all the other logistical and emotional navigation something like that requires. As as someone who worries a lot, I was surprised that I only gave it a few minutes of thought before deciding – “I’ve gotta do this. I don’t know how, but I’m really going to try to make this happen.” The timing felt significant, and the pull toward this program felt much bigger than myself. I was going to return to my territory to learn my language — in community. I still get emotional when I think about this.

The logistics of making this happen is a whole other story, but the easiest folks to convince and get onboard were the leadership team at RADIUS. They were all in my corner, cheering me on. This support was so important to me when, at times, other pieces of this puzzle were more challenging to come together. As the only Indigenous staff at RADIUS, it meant a lot to me to have this encouragement to prioritize my culture, and to have folks understand how important this was to me and for me.

Everything came together in the 11th hour of my move, and the stars really did align for me. I ended up renting a room in a house with two prominent language leaders in our Nation, on a lake, nestled in the trees, with a short ferry ride commute to class each day. I spent my days with my cohort, fellow Secwépemc, speaking the words of our ancestors.

It is a challenging language to learn, and I’ve never felt my brain work harder. It was like mental gymnastics and I was exhausted for the first few months of the program. But beyond its complexity, it is beautiful. It opens up a window into our worldview and to who we are, as Secwépemc. It validated things for me that I knew in my bones, but didn’t know how or why I did. It helped me understand why certain ways of being that have been celebrated in western culture don’t sit well with me. It further underscored the significance of relationality – the loss or ignorance of which is what contributes to much of the social and environmental harms we face today.

In Secwepemctsín, our grammar is such that the action comes first, the receiver is second, and the doer comes last, for the most part. This order is not accidental. It signals what we deem is most important. This means that actions, or what has been done, is most important and must be communicated first,— who or what was acted upon comes second, — and then who or what performed the action comes last. For example, kúpes r tu.uwíwt r kics translates to “the pushing of the boy was done by his sister”. Or, wiktn r sqéxe, the seeing of the dog was done by me.

If you take a moment to consider this way of thinking – intent holds little weight in relation to what was actually done. Accountability lies in actions, and who or what was impacted by those actions takes precedence over the doer. The dog was seen by me, rather than me seeing the dog as a passive object to be observed. This order signals that the dog is its own being first, and I, or the doer, am not more important than the dog, the receiver. Secwepemctsín, like many other Indigenous languages, is a verb based language. Meaning, verbs form the root of much of our words, and actions play a significant role in our way of being, as indicated in the  language. 

As Secwépemc, we decentre ourselves as a means to humble our place within the world. We don’t place ourselves above anyone or anything, and if someone were to do this, they are seen as untrustworthy or questionable.  This is in stark contrast to the individualist and anthropocentric lens of western society. I notice this more and more the longer I spend with our language, and it makes me evaluate potential partnerships, collaborations, and relationships with more clarity. 

In our language, I also couldn’t say, “she’s happy” or “they’re mad”, unless I was told that directly. If I don’t know something for sure, I need to ask. We use certain determiners that indicate whether something is confirmed to be true or can be seen, and another kind of determine if something is unknown or unseen. This makes for a kind of specificity that honors both the here and now, or what is present, as well as what is unseen. It also leaves room for another person’s perspective, and the fact that we can’t speak for another person’s feelings or experience. Assumptions are not made, or not voiced at least. 

I like to think we would have had less misunderstandings because of how explicit our language is. We have a variety of suffixes for “us”, “we”, and “you” that clearly indicate who is and who isn’t being referred to. For example, “-kuc” refers to an “us” or “we” that excludes the listener, and “-kt” refers to “us” or “we” that includes the listener. So if I say “qwetséts-kuc t̓e peséllkwe”, or “we’re going to the lake”, the listener knows I’m telling them my plans, rather than including them within my plans. It’s been fascinating to see the complexity of words in Secwepemctsín when it comes to kinship ties, plants, animals, and the land. While this specificity makes it challenging to learn the language, it also shows the care and respect of a people who acknowledge the unique traits and relations of someone or something. There are few shortcuts; and we don’t rush our words or those who speak them.

After 8 months of building new neural pathways and juggling work and school, I am back in the city for the summer. Every time I come back, I see things more and more through the lens of Secwepemctsín, and I feel like a visitor. I’ve noticed that I’m starting to feel homesick for Secwepemcúlecw, and I miss speaking the language.

Identity and belonging are core elements to the human experience. It roots us and allows us to walk through this world with confidence in who we are. This was taken away from my family when my kyé7e went to residential school. This experience has been much more than learning a second language, —  it brought me back home to the lands of my ancestors. I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity, and to the language, for calling my spirit back. I go back for my second year in September, and I already can’t wait.

Ts7ecw re p̓úsmen. Xwexwistén e sxeqpewén̓s r Secwepemctsín ell xeqpewén̓ mit̓e Secwépemc t̓e stetemét. Wu7llenwi7s-kuc ri7 k̓wsel̓kten, pyin. Kukstéc-kuc tqeltkúkwpi7 e skéctec-kuc r xqwelten r Secwepemctsín. Kukstsetselp.