Indigenous languages are complex systems designed to preserve the knowledge of and connection to the land. The Syilx People of the Okanagan Valley are not just for the land, they are of the land. They belong to it and honour the waters and mountains that have given all generations life. Grouse Barnes is an Elder and fluent Syilx language speaker from Westbank First Nation, present-day Kelowna, BC.
Barnes shares how the Syilx language expresses the knowledge of the land that has been gathered by the Syilx People: “Take the word for land–tmxʷulaxʷ; tmxʷulaxʷ, when you break that down, it means the sphere of living things that turn and rotate.”
Barnes goes up the mountain to hear nothing but silence and to learn from the clear thundering creeks that wear deep lines down the mountainside and make their way to the valley below. He offers the teaching that water is so humble that it will seek the lowest place on earth. The beautiful Syilx People honour the life-giving waters and the tmxʷulaxʷ that sustains them with language and song.
The Okanagan Song, created by Delphine Derickson (Westbank First Nation) and Herman Edward (Lower Similkameen Indian Band), is shared by all People of Okanagan Nation. It is an anthem sung in honour and acknowledges a profound responsibility to care for the land.
ałi kwu swiwi-numtax | We are beautiful
ałi kwu suknaʔqín̓x | We are Okanagan
ałi axa/ L/tmxwula/xw | Because our land is beautiful
The health and vitality of the Syilx language, People, and land are inseparable. A thriving language preserves the knowledge that continues to sustain resources for the Syilx People.
The land gives so that the People and the culture who care for it can thrive. Barnes delights in gratitude for all that the Syilx People have been provided by tmxʷulaxʷ, the land: “My People are still here. Our ceremonies are coming back. Our language is coming back. And so are we.”