Elizabeth Phillips is the last surviving fluent speaker of Upriver Halq’eméylem, the language of the Stó:lō people.

B.C. elder receives honorary degree for efforts to keep Indigenous language alive

Honour recognizes her efforts efforts to preserve Halq’eméylem language

  • Jun. 6, 2018 10:30 a.m.

If not for a few key turns of events, Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips might not be the last surviving fluent speaker of Upriver Halq’eméylem, the language of the Stó:lō people.

The first one was the tragic loss of her mother, who died giving birth to her in 1939. Her father already had several children to care for, and he took Elizabeth from her home village of Cheam across the river to Seabird Island to be raised by the Peters family, who were fluent Halq’eméylem speakers.

The second was becoming an honorary elder in the Stó:lō community while still in her 30s. The mother who raised her wanted to participate in the Elders Language Circle at the Coqualeetza Education Centre, but needed Elizabeth to translate for her as she only spoke Halq’eméylem. So Elizabeth was immersed in conversational sessions with elders several decades older than her, and kept her Halq’eméylem language skills sharp.

And the third is the 50 years of work she has put in formally working to preserve the language, cooperating with linguists and other professors from a variety of universities.

Now this formerly young elder is a true elder, approaching the age of 80, and has outlived those with whom she used to enjoy speaking her language fluently. But she continues to work to keep Halq’eméylem alive. For her efforts to ensure that current and future generations can speak the language, the University of the Fraser Valley is recognizing Elizabeth, whose Stó:lō name is Siyamiyateliyot, with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at its June 6 afternoon convocation ceremony, starting at 2:30 pm. The public is welcome to attend.

It can be lonely being the last fluent speaker of a language. Elizabeth even thinks and dreams in Halq’eméylem, but has nobody to converse fluently with anymore.

While being interviewed, she casually peppers the conversation with Halq’eméylem words such as xwelítem for white person, and Kwikwetlem for the community of Coquitlam.

“I only knew Halq’eméylem at first, but I would listen at the door as the Indian Agent came to talk to my dad, and he would translate for my mother, and I got to know both languages. One day, a xwelítem spoke to me in English and I answered, and my parents were surprised that I knew English.”

As a child, many in her community spoke Halq’eméylem, but after residential school experiences, the children came home not knowing their language and eventually only the elders could speak it.

In spite of many obstacles, Elizabeth’s dedication has enabled her to share her knowledge of Halq’eméylem widely. She has devote over half her life to trying to save her ancestral language, and generously helps anyone who wants to learn it.

She worked at the Coqualeetza Education Centre on efforts to preserve the language, starting in the 1980s. These days, she regularly visits Halq’eméylem classes offered by UFV.

In the 1970s and 80s, she cooperated with professional linguist Brent Galloway and other fluent speakers to create the Halq’eméylem dictionary, helping to preserve a language that was fading fast.

“Halq’eméylem was an oral language until the Coqualeetza elders group created a writing system with Dr. Galloway,” recalls Elizabeth’s daughter Vivian Walker. “My mother and 11 other elders went and lived in a dorm at UBC where they learned to use the writing system and completed the orthography of the language. Without their effort the language might be dead now. And now my mom is the last one alive who was involved in this project.”

In recent years, linguist Strang Burton recorded her speaking her native tongue both on film and as an ultrasound recording, enabling students to see how the muscles move inside the mouth for certain sounds.

Elizabeth and the late Xwiyólemot Tillie Gutierrez and linguist Susan Russell co-authored Talking in Halq’eméylem, Documenting Conversation in an Indigenous Language, published in 2017.

For Elizabeth, it’s the casual encounters with her former students that make her efforts worthwhile. She has proudly witnessed some going on to earn their education degrees and become teachers. Others stop her on the street to thank her.

“I was waiting for the bus after shopping and a young man came up to me and said éy swayel [hello]. He was from a class that I have visited taught by Koyalemot Mary Stewart. It happens at bingo too. Someone came up and asked if I was Elizabeth and thanked me for preserving our language.”

Just Posted

Fire ban back in effect for Northwest Fire Centre region

Starting May 24, both Category 2 and Category 3 prohibitions will be in place

New Seven Sisters replacement confirmed

Mental health facility will have 25 beds, up from 20 in current facility

Convicted animal abuser to return to B.C. court May 21

Catherine Jessica Adams is facing a breach of probation charge

Gallery: Project Heavy Duty inspires students into it’s 32nd year

The event is a collaboration between SD91 and industry in and around Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake and Fort St. James

Telkwa pot plant application passes review

Cannabis company claims new Health Canada regulations are working in its favour

New airline regulations bring compensation for tarmac delays, over-bookings

Some of the new regulations will roll out in July, while others are expected for December.

Scheer says it would take Conservatives five years to balance budget

Scheeraccused the Liberal government of spending $79.5 billion of previously unbudgeted funds

B.C. man, 30, arrested for driving his parents’ cars while impaired twice in one day

The Vancouver-area man was arrested after officers caught him driving impaired twice in one day

More than half of Canadians support ban on handguns, assault rifles: study

Divide between rural and urban respondents in latest Angus Reid Institute public opinion study

Spring rain needed as B.C. sees one of the lowest snowpack levels in 40 years

Snowpack levels in B.C. recorded on May 15 were similar to those in 2015 and 2016

Theresa May to quit as party leader June 7, sparking race for new PM

The new Conservative leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election

B.C. man who fell off cliff returns there to rescue eagle from vulture attack

Nanaimo’s James Farkas, who broke his hip in a fall, saves eagle on same beach months later

Raptors beat Bucks 105-99 to move within 1 game of NBA Finals

Leonard scores 35 as Toronto takes 3-2 series lead over Milwaukee

Municipalities protest after B.C. declares marijuana crops ‘farm use’

UBCM president seeks answers in letter to John Horgan government

Most Read