Hans Helgesen elementary school student Olivia Lessard learns the Coast Salish language Hul’qumi’num from Beecher Bay elder Lee Charles.

Hans Helgesen elementary school student Olivia Lessard learns the Coast Salish language Hul’qumi’num from Beecher Bay elder Lee Charles.

Keeping an old language young

Students at Hans Helgesen elementary are getting a firsthand experience on what it means to revive a culture.

This year Beecher Bay First Nation elder Lee Charles started teaching a Grade 4 and 5 class the Coast Salish language Hul’qumi’num.

“She is a great grandmother. She sees the importance of the language. If you lose your language, you lose your culture,” said vice principal Sue Tonnesen.

Charles has been teaching Beecher Bay youth the language for years, but this is the first year the school has included her teachings in its curriculum. The majority of students in the class are non-First Nations.

“It’s pretty tough to learn, but it gets easier,” said Olivia Lessard, Grade 5 student.

When Principal Julia Sahota first approached Charles about teaching in a classroom, she declined. “I didn’t think non-native students would be very interested,” Charles said. “But they are really picking it up.”

Josh Fritz, a Grade 4 student, finds he is better at learning Hul’qumi’num than he is English. “I can pronounce words and when I try to say them in English I can’t say them,” he said. “It’s weird because I am not native.”

For Grade 4 student Danielle Charles-Horne, having Charles, her grandmother, teaching the class makes her feel proud.

Charles-Horne has spent her life learning her language and enjoys sharing her culture and knowledge with the rest of the class.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Charles-Horne said. “It feels good when other kids ask me how to spell words.”

Charles’ weekly lessons have had an impact on students and taught them more than a few words in another language.

“It’s really bad the First Nations people are losing their language,” Fritz said. “Other nations have their language like French, Russian and German.”

A sentiment echoed by a fellow Grade 4 classmate. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to lose their language and not other people,” said Eric Preston.

Things have come a long way since Charles was young. When she was a child she was punished for speaking her own language in school.

“I really look forward to coming here, and it makes me feel really good at the kids’ interest,” Charles said.

“A big part of the Grade 4 curriculum is First Nations,” Tonnesen said. “The kids love it and they look forward to it.”

Tonnesen worked in Hazelton, B.C. for 16 years before coming to Hans Helgesen last year.

Her son went to a French immersion school on a reserve. Tonnesen’s son, who is not First Nations, learned the native language Gitxsanimaax along side his First Nations classmates. For them, learning the native language was just part of school.

“My children were raised in a native community,”  Tonnesen said. “They were the only blonde kids on the hockey team.”