Reclaiming Birth, Reclaiming Language
In 2015, I returned to work at a First Nations health organization after a one-year maternity leave with my first born. I was taking baby steps toward healing from my undiagnosed postpartum depression and anxiety, and was not happy with the work environment I’d returned to. One of my new coworkers particularly irritated me. She was annoyingly perky and outspoken without humility, but what bothered me most was how she dove head first into leading a drum song or smudge. She was indirect about her ancestry, always naming the Indigenous territory where she grew up but never claiming Indigenous lineage nor naming her whiteness. She embodied whitesplaining, confidently teaching us Indigenous folks how to be more Indigenous.
One day she stopped by my desk while she waited to enter into a meeting in an office next door. She initiated a conversation that for her was idle chit chat to fill a few minutes, and for me quickly escalated from an irritating distraction to blood-boiling rage.
After asking me about my daughter and my return to work, she asked, “Are you teaching your daughter your traditional language?”
“I don’t speak it.”
“It’s never too late to learn!” she sang back to me as she walked into the office next door for her meeting.
It may seem innocent enough, but I was livid. I wanted to scream at her for being so insensitive and ignorant. How dare she!
I am Stó:lō and our language is Halq’eméylem, which is a distinct dialect (the Upriver dialect) of the Halkomelem language group. We have one remaining fluent speaker of Halq’eméylem. One.
This is why I felt so irate when my coworker breezily suggested that I go learn my language to pass it on to my daughter. How might I do that, really? Realistically, what would I need to do to immerse myself in language learning enough to become even a basic speaker? Quit my job, move my family back to my home territory, invite myself into the home of the 80-year old remaining speaker and demand her precious time to teach me? Or, I suppose I could try to sign up for a language class in my hometown, commute from Vancouver every week, despite having a one-year old at home that needed me, and attempt to master a language by adding yet another task to my already overwhelming life as a working mom of a toddler.
Maybe you’re saying, but isn’t there an app for that? Yes, there is a Halq’eméylem app and I don’t want to discredit what an incredible resource that is. I hold my hands up in gratitude for all the people out there pouring their efforts into our language revitalization. Nevertheless, there are limits to how immersive you can be in a language without another human speaker to talk to.
What I felt in that moment, confronted with my coworker’s probably well-intentioned, but definitely harmful and ignorant question, was deep shame.
In a time when I already felt completely inadequate as a mother, when I had daily thoughts of, “I’m not good enough for my daughter, she deserves better than me”, here was a white woman reminding me of one more thing I couldn’t give to my daughter. Our traditional language.
In a time when I already felt helplessly out of control, here was a reminder of how hopeless it can feel to know that our language, spoken by my grandparents and great grandparents generation, wasn’t passed down to my Dad’s generation, or mine. It felt so hopeless that something so precious, shared among my people not so long ago, was about to slip through our fingers. It felt like my generation was the last to have the chance to save our language, and we just weren’t doing enough. That I am not enough.
I felt grief; grief for all the generations before us whose voices were silenced, and all those generations to come who won’t speak our language.
When I hear mine or any other Indigenous language spoken, I am moved. Often, I feel a lump in my throat, and I imagine how our Ancestors felt holding back their language as they were forced to learn English. Sometimes I cry, and it feels like the joy of our Ancestors bursting out of me, spilling over from the Spirit world into our physical realm.
As a person working in a First Nations health organization, she should have known better. She should have known the settler colonial history and contemporary context to her question; the theft of land, the communicable diseases, the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the myriad of ways that our ways of life were (and are) attacked and our languages stolen from us. She should have known of the grief and trauma reverberating across generations that makes a seemingly innocent question about language actually very harmful and triggering. She should have known that a new Indigenous mother doesn’t want to be questioned by a white person about how she’s raising her child.
I listened recently to the All My Relations podcast episode 9, ‘Can Our Ancestors Hear Us?’ and it gave me back a bit of hope (and to answer the question that the title asks, yes, I do believe our Ancestors can hear us. Our love and prayers can transcend the limitations of the physical world, including spoken language). In the episode, the hosts and guests discuss how language comes from the land. Language comes from the land. That offering brought peace to my heart and helped me move forward with a question I’ve been exploring for months.
In November of 2019, I co-facilitated Ekw’i7tl full spectrum doula training in Kwakwaka’kwak territory. Over the course of the four-day training, the group of Elders, matriarchs, mothers, aunties, grandmothers, birth workers, and community members shared our wisdom, knowledge, stories, ideas, and skills with one another with the goal of reclaiming traditional birth knowledge and practices, and returning birth closer to home. One of the themes that emerged, and a lesson for me, was the importance of Indigenous language to reclaiming birth. Reclaiming language and reclaiming birth are intimately connected. This left me wondering how I could work toward reclamation of language within my birth work, when I feel so disconnected from Halq’eméylem.
As I’ve walked alongside families in their birth journeys, I’ve seen families reclaim their Indigenous languages by speaking the first words to baby in their native language, offering a welcoming song or prayer, or choosing a name for their child in their language. All of these are beautiful ways to reclaim language and reclaim birth together.
Babies come into this world without spoken language. Language is a human construct of the physical world. Language comes from the land. And the land is still here, and we’re still here, so our languages must still be here too. And just as the land will change and evolve over time, so will we, and so will our languages.
As I dive deeper into birth work, I am starting to grasp the depth of teachings that are all around us. When I can quiet my mind enough to truly listen, to be present in this embodied experience, to listen to what the land tells me, to listen to what birth tells me, to listen to what the plants tell me, to listen to what the babies tell me, the teachings come. I practice being comfortable in silence, because sometimes that moment of pause is necessary before something truly amazing emerges.
So maybe in this time when Halq'eméylem is quiet (or sleeping, as they said on the All My Relations podcast) I am meant to be quiet too, so that I may listen to the unspoken language of the land, plant helpers, and babies as they offer their teachings. Perhaps, my work in reclaiming birth as a ceremony that ties us to the land, is the leg of the journey that I am on and the gift that I can bring to the people, so that when Halq’eméylem awakens, our children and grandchildren are here to receive it. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to reclaim a language. I don’t have to feel shame for struggling; I’m not alone.
When a baby is born, the portal between the Spirit world and physical world is open, and that’s a perfect time to listen for the whispers of our Ancestors, reminding us that we know.
Kw’as ho:y to the people of Sts’ailes who taught me the phrase:
"Eyem mestiyewx kwo:l te shxweli temexw”
Strong people from birth to spirit life.
This vision has guided me in my work in health for over 10 years.
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