Finding the language within: New PhD study on the music and language of the Salish peoples

PhD student Valerie Bob. | Photo courtesy of SFU

PhD student Valerie Bob. | Photo courtesy of SFU

There is a First Nations belief that you carry your language within. You always possess it, but you just have to find it.

Valerie Bob, a member of the Hul’q’umi’num’ peoples, is embarking on a four-year PhD study to improve knowledge of the relationship between traditional Coast Salish music and the endangered Salish language Hul’q’umi’num’. She will undertake her research through a Graduate Aboriginal Scholarship awarded by Simon Fraser University.

Under the working title The Sacred and the Secular: Hul’q’umi’num’ ceremonial music and language renewal, Bob’s research will continue preserving First Nations heritage and identity. In particular, her own personal interest centres around the gap between knowledge and expression.

“There’s such a big disconnect between language revitalization and healing,” she says. “It’s not just about repetition and acquisition – it’s about a deeper, more intentional feeling.”

An overshadowed language

Hul’q’umi’num’ is a Salish language spoken across much of Vancouver Island and the neighbouring islands. It unites six First Nations groups and a total of over 6,000 people, yet there are only about 50 people who still speak it fluently, shadowed by the estimated 100 who are semi-fluent. Valerie Bob is one of the latter. Experiences at residential schools, she says, stole her language capabilities. Even after years of relearning, her words are sometimes choked by a feeling of guilt for doing something that was previously banned and punishable.

Singing traditional songs in a language class gave Bob the first spark of inspiration for her research. Drawing on her own language experiences, her talks with mentors, her days as a teacher and her passion for music, Bob aims to investigate how traditional Coast Salish music can support both the Hul’q’umi’num’ language structure and the emotions connected with language revival.

“I hope to elucidate and explain the core elements of Coast Salish music, the nature of Hul’q’umi’num’ lyrics and how they work together to create a holistic cultural experience,” she says.

Valerie Bob will build on existing language research by comparing specific secular and religious genres. Songs will be taken from stories within the Hul’q’umi’num’ oral tradition and laid beside songs from the Shaker Church intended to express the spiritual heritage of the First Nations. Bob plans to select four such songs to focus on, including a woman’s warrior song and the oldest known song with Hul’q’umi’num’ lyrics.

As stated in her proposal, Bob intends to study scale, tone and rhythm, aside from lyrics and content, to determine what makes them uniquely Hul’q’umi’num’. The analysis is expected to yield a more precise understanding of the Hul’q’umi’num’ language. The music, meanwhile, will help express the spirit of the Hul’q’umi’num’ peoples.

“Understanding the structure of Hul’q’umi’num’ songs will assist in the creation of new songs and will provide the opportunity to mentor the younger generation in a living tradition,” Bob says.

Progressing oral traditions

Since the Hul’q’umi’num’ language is carried by only 50 fluent speakers – most of them Elders – Bob is in charge of an increasingly timely project. While collecting her research, she will be preserving oral traditions under the mentorship of the Elders who have carried them. The first prong of the study, then, is scholarship and documentation. The second prong is the application of learning tools. Though language learning may be considered the purview of schools, Bob considers her research equally applicable to children and adults.

“It’s an intergenerational problem,” she says, “pushing the pain aside and remembering that from an indigenous perspective we have so many songs.”

She compares relearning language to a grieving process and has found that the repetition of traditional music can be a form of emotional therapy, something with which she has personal experience.

“I spent a lot of my life being angry at – I didn’t even know what –
until I came back to my culture,” she says. “This is real to a lot of people relearning and reviving. And what is authentic is when they bring their emotions to what they are trying to learn.”