People & Culture

Languages of the Land: Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams on nsnek̓wnúk̓wa7, family, community

In the eighth part of the “Languages of the Land” digital series, the Lil’wat Professor Emerita of Indigenous Education, Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Victoria speaks to Canadian Geographic about community relationships, language and responsibility. 

A Lil'wat Elder with short grey hair looks just beyond the camera. She is wearing a silver medallion and dark clothes. In the background is a bookcase.
Lorna Wanosts'a7 Williams speaks with CanGeo associate editor Abi Hayward at the Canadian launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. (Photo: still from video by Daniel Arian/Canadian Geographic)
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Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams [is my name]. The way that we usually say it is that I’m Lil̓wat7úl — that’s where my family and community are — but I live currently on the lands of the Lekwungen speaking people in Victoria.

On an important word in Ucwalmícwts,  the Lil’wat language

Well, a word that always comes to me is nsnek̓wnúk̓wa7, because, in my language, it’s the word for family; it’s the word for friends; it’s the word for community; and it’s the word for a gathering of people like we had today. I think, because it means all of those things, it really gives a good idea of the way that the world works in our ways. 

I think that it’s always been one that I’ve used since I used it in writing a book for grade 2 in 1979. I was doing the curriculum and I was trying to think of how to make a transition from family to community, and I was thinking, of course, in English because it was a social studies book for public schools. And then I was driving on and all of a sudden that word came to me — we have that one word that means all those relationships, and I just thought how beautiful that was. So when we introduce ourselves we always say our name and then we say this is the land we’re from and this is where my family, community are. That word snek̓wnúk̓wa7. 

On what the International Decade of Indigenous Languages means 

There’s finally an acknowledgment and a recognition that there are Indigenous languages around the world and that there’s going to be attention paid to them — after all these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of people being colonized and losing their languages. So the International Decade of Indigenous Languages is really meaningful because finally I think the world realizes that there are Indigenous languages and that everyone is of value.

“By the end of this decade Canadians will know that there are the Indigenous languages and that they have the responsibility to know those languages, the languages of where they live.”

It’s also an opportunity for Indigenous Peoples from around the world to share their knowledge, their wisdom, the beauty of their languages and to be able to share the depth of wisdom that’s in those languages when we think about the land. Because of the current state of the lands of this planet, we need to be able to help the planet. We need to help the Earth to rebuild itself and the way to do that can be found in our languages.

On hopes for the next decade

In ten years? Well, that the Indigenous languages are being spoken again and that there is a knowledge that there are these languages. In Canada, if I just look at our country, all across the country, there are amazing, amazing people working on their languages, but do people know that? Very little. Even as Canadians, we don’t know the work that is being done. So what my hope is that by the end of this decade Canadians will know that there are the Indigenous languages and that they have the responsibility to know those languages, the languages of where they live.

My other hope is that it’ll give us an opportunity for Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island and around the Earth to be able to share together, to learn from one another and to celebrate with one another that our languages continue even though there have been such assaults placed on our languages.

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