Antoinette ‘Toni’ Archie is helping to keep the Secwepemc language alive.
The 81-year-old elder of the Canim Lake Band has been teaching her ancestral language to children at the Eliza Archie Memorial School since 1985. The school was named for one of her relatives.
“I truly enjoy what I do there,” said Archie who has lived in the area for most of her life. “We are trying to get the children to realize this is their Secwepemc language. We want them to take it home to their parents who do not know it, so they are little teachers when they get home. It’s kind of tough but we hang in there.”
This work is especially important, Archie said, as the Canim Lake Band and the wider Shuswap people are running out of language speakers. As a child, Archie said all the children at Canim Lake spoke Secwepemc before they were sent to residential schools and not allowed to speak it.
Archie, a survivor of the residential school system, attended St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake. She’s ashamed to say she didn’t want to hear Secwepemc anymore after she left school due to a fear of being laughed at.
However, she was lucky: her family, including her parents, still spoke it around her when she would return home for two months each year and she didn’t entirely lose it.
“I retained my language by listening to my mom. She refused to speak any English – of course, she couldn’t speak English anyway, and I think that’s how I retained some of my language,” Archie said. “Listening to some of our elders (at the time) talking, laughing and having fun with the language, telling stories, was so comical and I thought to myself ‘well why am I so ashamed of the language?’”
As time went on, Archie began to notice fewer children were speaking Secwepemc, so she volunteered at the school as a part-time language teacher. Although she didn’t graduate from high school, after seven years of work, with the support of the band, she earned a teacher’s degree.
Today, she teaches Secwepemc three times a week in the afternoon and said she finds it rewarding.
“It makes me feel great, I feel that I am offering something and doing something and thinking about my mom, my dad and grandmother and I just want them to be looking down on me to see what I am doing,” Archie said.
When her students asked her questions about residential school on Orange Shirt Day this year, she explained how she and others were punished for speaking it. While she’s still working towards helping people become fluent in Secwepemc, Archie said she’s noticed children and young people are beginning to use Secwepemc words again for simple phrases, which is a start. The children, she added, really enjoy singing in the language – from traditional greeting songs to the Secwempec versions of Silent Night and other Christmas carols.
Archie’s work at the school is also a continuation of another old tradition, that of the role of elders in Shuswap society. As a child, she said, elders were the teachers of the community, regardless of which family the child belonged to, and would tell them stories and teach life lessons, all in Secwepemc.
When not working at the school, Archie keeps busy helping people translate books, meeting elders from other communities and teaching others how to speak the language, which she can also read and write.
She also recently got a call from the Williams Lake First Nation inviting her to come up and speak Secwepemc, which will be recorded for prosperity.
“The language is important (people) should take it upon themselves to learn the language and help to keep our language alive,” Archie said. “I myself try to teach my grandchildren the language and I am proud of what I have accomplished through the years.”