The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #4 July / August 2013
Languages in Peril
The Salish Tragedy
by Lucille Martin
July / August 2013 | 

Many native people around the world find themselves either left in almost total isolation or suppressed, with their younger generations joining a larger, modern world. When this happens, the language and culture of their people suffer and all too often become extinct. This is the situation with most Native American Indian tribes.

Salish men standing by tepees near St. Ignatius Mission, Flathead Reservation, Montana, 1903

The various native peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis are called "The First Nations", and there are currently over 630 recognized First Nations governments or bands throughout Canada. History has not been kind to these First Nations, which flourished until the 1700s. It was then that Europeans started exploring the new world and establishing claims. They brought diseases, mainly smallpox, which the native peoples had no immunities to. Those that weren't wiped out were often moved onto "reservations", land put aside for them to live on, so that the Europeans could take over the rest of the territory. Christian missionaries came to convert the natives and set up schools to "educate" them. In 1867, the "Indian Act" was created, which was a policy that focused on assimilating the natives into "civilized society", and this was made law with the Enfranchisement Act later that same year. Soon, aboriginal children were forced into the schools and made to give up their language, culture and beliefs. It wasn't until later in the 20th century that some rights were re-established for the native people. But by then, the damage was done, and many people and languages had been completely wiped out, while those that remained were on the point of extinction. Of over 300 original native languages in North America, over half are now extinct, with over fifty of those vanishing in just the past 15 years.

A group of these languages is the Salishan, or Salish. "Salish" is the name a particular tribe gave itself, but now refers to the larger group of what is sometimes called "Flathead Indians". The Salishan people live mainly in northwest North America, on the Pacific coast, spanning the two countries of the United States and Canada. In the US, they are found in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, while in Canada, they are in the province of British Columbia.

The Salishan language family has twenty-three languages, with all of them being either extinct or endangered. Most have under one thousand speakers, and most of those are over the age of sixty. We are going to look at three of these: Halkomelem, Nuxálk and Squamish.


Halkomelem is the name of a Coast Salish language found in British Columbia and Washington state. It covers three dialects of the region. The name "Halkomelem" comes from a combination of the three names of the dialects, which was then anglicized.

The Salishan language family has twenty-three languages, with all of them being either extinct or endangered.

The first is the Upriver dialect, called Halq'eméylem, which is spoken in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. The people who speak this are called Stó:lō, with "Stó:lō" being the Halq'eméylem word for the Fraser River. The first evidence of the Stó:lō living in the Fraser Valley goes back over 8,000 years ago. The Stó:lō name for the area was S'ólh Téméxw. The people were hunter-gatherers and traveled between the lower Fraser Canyon and the mouth of the Fraser River seasonally, moving to take advantage of the hunting and fishing of the region. Today, the Stó:lō Nation encompasses other other bands as well, like the Matsqui. The name "Matsqui" is Halkomelem, meaning a "stretch of higher ground" and is the name of the district.

Map showing Salish language region in North America

Next is the Downriver dialect, Hun'qumi'num', which is spoken by the people who live downriver from Matsqui. This includes the Musqueam and Tsawwassen bands. The Musqueam are perhaps the oldest-known residents of Vancouver. They have lived in the Fraser River estuary for over 9,000 years, with their traditional territory encompassing the lands, lakes and streams from modern Howe Sound to English Bay to Harvey Creek. Today, it is the only Indian band whose reservation lies within the boundaries of the City of Vancouver.

Lastly, the Island dialect, Hul'q'umín'um', is spoken on Vancouver Island. The island has been the homeland to many indigenous peoples for thousands of years, grouped into three language branches with Coast Salish being the largest. The Hul'q'umín'um' speaking nations within the Coast Salish peoples include the Chemainus, the Cowichan of the Cowichan Valley, the Nanoose, the Nanaimo and the Malahat.

Stó:lō woman with a cedar basket

The Spanish began to explore the island in 1774, but in 1790, there was a dispute between Spain and Britain for the territory. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver was sent there by the British to establish an agreement, while the Spanish sent Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Although their meeting ended in deadlock, with neither side wishing to give it up, Quadra did propose the island be named "Quadra and Vancouver Island". Eventually, during the 19th century, the Spanish left the area and the name was shortened to "Vancouver". The European struggle over the island was a disaster for the natives, as diseases like smallpox devastated tribes while the European culture also competed with their own.

Halkomelem has only around one hundred speakers remaining, with most of those being elderly. Of those, it is estimated that the number of fluent speakers was less than one dozen in 2000. The differences in dialects are mainly between the Upriver and Island ones, but each dialect has its own distinct orthography, making recording these languages for preservation even more complex. In order to help save Halkomelem, language programs at the Stó:lō Nation, Seabird Island First Nation (the Stó:lō people living on Seabird Island), and Cowichan First Nation have been developed. Many young people from the Halkomelem-speaking tribes are also working to keep their language alive.


Sḵwx̱wú7mesh longhouses once located in 1886 at Coal Harbour

Squamish is another language of the Coast Salish branch, spoken by the Squamish people who live mainly on reservations in Squamish, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver. These people call themselves Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, with the symbol 7 used to represent a glottal stop. It is greatly in danger of extinction, but it still used in ceremonies, events and basic conversations. All the speakers of it are elderly, and as of 2010, there were only 10 fluent speakers left.

Little is really known about the language before the 1800s. Before Europeans made contact with them, the Squamish people spoke Squamish and the Chinook Jargon in all their villages. After contact, spread of disease wiped out much of the population and colonization by the Europeans forced the language to become a minority in its own region. This worsened even further when the Canadian government enforced assimilation and a school was set up in the village of Eslha7an in which the children were forbidden to speak Squamish. If a child broke that ban, he was punished and beaten. As a result, the next generation lost the knowledge of their native tongue and English became the dominant language.

Stó:lō people fishing with traditional dipnets on the Fraser River

Many anthropologists and linguists have studied Squamish, including Frank Boas, Charles Hill-Tout, and Homer Barnett. Dutch linguist Aert J. Kuipers worked on the first comprehensive grammar of the Squamish language in the 1950's. The British Columbia Indian Language Project worked to further document the Squamish language and culture, and from this, a writing system was devised. Some schools started offering languages classes with more than the usual French language option, and a children's school, Xwemelch'stn Estimxwataxw School ("Xwmelch'stn Littleones School"), with grades kindergarten to third, was built to assist in language immersion. Finally, to ensure funding for the language and its revitalization, Squamish was declared the official language of the Squamish people by its Chief and Council in 1990.


British Columbia Indian Language Project

"The British Columbia Indian Language Project was undertaken from 1973 to 1976 in Victoria. Project organizers included Randy Bouchard, and those involved in the various studies included Nancy J. Turner, Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy I.D. Kennedy. Many linguistic and ethnographic works were produced under the Project's auspices, including word lists, studies of dialects, and studies of Indian people's uses of wildlife. The Project's scope was later expanded to the study of Indians in the Pacific Northwest."

- Description from The British Columbia Archival Information Network

Nuxálk is a Salish language belonging to its own branch. It was previously called Bella Coola, which is the name of the area it is spoken in British Columbia, but the natives refer to themselves as Nuxálk, which might be derived from what the coastal Heiltsuk people called them, bḷ́xʷlá ("plxwlaq's" in Nuxálk orthography), meaning "stranger".

While it forms its own subgroup, Nuxálk shares phonological and morphological features with Coast Salish languages. It also borrows many words from some North Wakashan languages, especially Heiltsuk, as well as from nearby Athabascan languages and Tsimshian. It was once spoken in over one hundred settlements. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Nuxálk population was approximately 35,000. They were a fishing, hunting and gathering people, fishing for salmon and eulachon in the Bella Coola River. The first recorded encounter they had with Europeans was in the summer of 1793, when Captain George Vancouver briefly entered their waters. A few weeks later, an exploration team, led by Alexander Mackenzie, arrived. The Nuxálk people gave Mackenzie a huge welcome, which is still a source of pride in their stories today. It didn't turn out to be such a joyous occasion for the band, however.

After contact, with the spread of smallpox, the Nuxálk villages were almost completely wiped out, with just 300 surviving. The Nuxálk became scattered throughout the region, either moving on their own to survive or being forcibly removed by the Department of Indian Affairs. Those that were removed were placed on a settlement in what is now known as Bella Coola.

Nuxálk People gathered around an eulachan stink box, which is located near the Bella Coola River. A stink box is a large box in which eulachon are placed to ripen after being caught.

While the the language is taught in both the elementary school system and the Nuxálk Nation's own school, Acwsalcta ("a place of learning"), there has not been an increase in the number of truly fluent speakers. In 1996, the registered population was 1185, with 706 people living on the reservation. It is now spoken fluently by under thirty elderly natives.

With their economic situation worsening as employment opportunities disappear within the fishing and forestry industry, many of the people have had to expand their education and look for jobs outside of the community. If these things don't change soon, Nuxálk is likely to become extinct within this decade.

Languages in Peril - The Salish Tragedy
Writer: Lucille Martin
Mimigu: Fraser River Panorama (title)
Ish ishwar: Salishan languages map
M. Lounsbery: View looking east on the Fraser River
Petey: Salish men on Flathead Reservation, Montana, 1903; Stó:lō woman with a cedar basket; Sḵwx̱wú7mesh longhouses; Stó:lō people fishing with traditional dipnets on the Fraser River; Nuxálk People gathered around an eulichan stink box, near the Bella Coola River
• "District of Matsqui" Wikipedia <>
• "Musqueam Indian Band" Wikipedia <>
• "Vancouver Island" Wikipedia <>
• "First Nations" Wikipedia <>
• "Salishan languages" Wikipedia <>
• "Halkomelem language" Wikipedia <>
• "Halkomelem Language" Native <>
• "The Halkomelem Language" Yinka Déné Language Institute <>
• "Halkomelem Language" <>
• "Hul’q’umi’num’ / Halq'eméylem / hən̓q̓əmin̓əm" First Peoples' Language Map of B.C. <>
• "Squamish language" Wikipedia <>
• "Squamish culture" Wikipedia <>
• "Nuxálk language" Wikipedia <>
• "Nuxalk Nation" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
• "Nuxalk (Bella Coola)" The Canadian Encyclopedia <>
• "British Columbia Indian Language Project fonds" The British Columbia Archival Information Network <;rad>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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