More than just ‘Welcome’

October 8, 2019

“…because of the environmental knowledge encoded within language, it is as important as biodiversity.” –Victor Guerin


This year VIRL is showcasing Indigenous people, cultures, customs and creations for our Library Month, but it extends beyond the month of October.

We want to ensure that all people feel welcome and recognized in our space, always. An initiative to develop welcome signs in the local Indigenous language for all of our 39 branches was guided by our dedicated Indigenous Committee and was a fascinating exercise in determining the proper greetings for each of our branches. Why was it so important to include each greeting?

This explanation from Indigenous Corporate Training may shed some light:

“It can be customary between one First Nation and another to acknowledge the host Nation Peoples and their traditional territory at the outset of any meeting. The long struggle by First Nations to maintain traditions has been tough, but through it all this basic protocol has survived and thrived. Because doing so acknowledges that you recognize that you’re on the land of a Nation that has had a relationship since time immemorial with that land. It is a sign of respect and recognition, and you can’t go wrong with respect and recognition. You are acknowledging the ties the descendants of those First Peoples have to the land – its importance to their culture, ceremonies, and traditions.”

To dig even deeper into the issue of language, we spoke with Victor Guerin, a Musqueam Community Member and Masters of Linguistics student. “Language revitalization will be a long journey, but every journey has to start somewhere.”

The revitalization of language is complex, with many nuances and location-specific distinctions.  Victor’s passion for language stems mainly from his mother and her dedication to keeping their family tongue alive, despite being heavily conditioned within the colonial perspective while growing up. “We can maintain a certain amount of culture without language, but it is an impoverished culture. Language and culture are inseparable.  Language development in a geographical area is encoded with information specific to that soil, Because of the environmental knowledge encoded within language, it is as important as biodiversity.”

Some of the phrases used today have some interesting direct translations. For example in the Vancouver Island Dialect of Musqueum,  m̓i ce:p kʷətxʷiləm – Is used as a contemporary phrase intended for use as an expression of welcoming, if you look at its historical usage, however, it literally means ‘Come inside (the building)’.

‘ii ch ‘uw ‘uy’ ‘al’ – Is a commonly used expression of greeting contemporarily. Often people will respond with the same phrase as a reply, yet in actual fact, the literal translation is ‘are you quite well?’ and would have required a different answer to the question.

hay ch q’u  – the most commonly used expression of gratitude. Interestingly the literal translation ‘you’re certainly/definitely finished.’ stems from the time when community members were being honoured for their participation in a feast or community ceremony in the big house, so the phrase, ‘thank you, you’re done now’ makes sense!

One of our team members spoke with a member of the Stz’uminus First Nation band about the preferred greeting for the Ladysmith library. She told him that the newer generation uses ‘Uy’ skweyul (good day) but if you used that with an Elder on a rainy day they would say “you’re crazy, it’s raining outside”.  An Elder would use ‘li ch ‘o’ sthuthi? (how are you?).

Despite the many barriers facing language revitalization, it is gaining momentum and energy. The United Nations has declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages.

The best way to learn more? Ask! Find out more about your local Indigenous languages, your local library can help you on that journey! No matter the language, you are always welcome here.

Indigenous Interest