The Gift of the Kia7as: Splats’in First Nations’ Language Nest Program

By Joani Mortensen

Researching the Splats’in Language Nest

This article is a brief summary of an ethnographic research project that I was invited to collaborate on with Splats’in Child Care Society’s executive director Deanna Leon-Cook. The project goal was to assess the influence of the Splats’in language nest program.

I am a social worker whose roots were developed in early childhood education. I have had the joyful privilege of coordinating and teaching in an Aboriginal early childhood education program for the Native Education Centre of BC, hosted by the Splats’in Child Care Society. I have worked in the Splats’in community, which is located in the Okanagan, in a variety of capacities for the past 10 years, including child welfare, as a child and family therapist, as an educator, and, most recently, as a PhD research student.

It is as a researcher that I tread most cautiously, and more specifically, as a non-Aboriginal researcher. According to Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999); “ probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary” (p.1). For this reason, I am compelled to identify my own position and my motives for engaging in this work. As a graduate student of critical theory, social work, and as an instructor in early childhood education, I am mindful of my privilege, and I endeavour to conduct research responsibly. I consider myself an ally to this community, an outsider who works from within. My commitment is to serve the Splats’in community by offering my experience, knowledge, and skills, being mindful to incorporate Indigenous education and research methods that respect and reflect Indigenous cosmologies and worldviews (Alfred, 1999; Battiste, 2008; Dunbar, 2008; Grande, 2008; Sinclair, 2008, 2004).

The Splats’in Child Care Society is a leader in the province for providing culturally significant programming for the community’s children. Their model remains on the national radar as progressive, culturally relevant, and unique (Cook & Williams, 2004; Greenwood, 2003), and has been a sought after model by many other Aboriginal communities.

The language nest program is held in its own room in the child care centre that was built specifically for the Kia7as (the Secwepemc word for grandmothers, pronounced “Kia-ahs”), but is folded into the overall delivery of education as integral cultural curriculum. The room is large and bright, with a minimal number of toys or other items to distract the children. Instead, there are several comfy couches, baskets of child-sized hand-drums, and a wide open space for dancing, story-telling, and play. The walls are lined with the cultural products the children and the Kia7as make together in the context of teaching and learning the Secwepemc language. There is an open kitchen in the room that frequently fills the room with the ambient aroma of the hearty, home-cooked lunch that is prepared each day for the Kia7as. Immediately upon entering this room, I know that I am in a very special place; witness to both a progressive model of early childhood education, and also the return of this community’s traditional practices and roles for their Kia7as: to raise, teach, guide, and care for the children (Cook & Williams, 2004; Sinclair, 2004).

Anecdote: The Grandmothers Calling Me on My Language

I entitled the ECEBC conference paper “The Gift of the Kia7as: An Impact Study of the Splats’in Language Nest”. After spending time with the Kia7as and the children, and in preparation for the conference, I asked the Kia7as to describe for me the impact of the language nest for them. The Kai7as described the word “impact” as colonial language that suggested some sort of collision, or aggressive contact at the very least. They urged me to find another way. I reflected to them that my experience of observing the language nest was one of being in complete awe of the mutual influence the Kia7as and the children had upon each other. I began to recount some of the words that sprang to my mind and captured this unique experience, words such as family, community, lush, open, grace, fluid, mosaic, embodied, spirit, playful, nature, and home. I asked them if these words fit their experience, to which they replied with a resounding “yes.” This is when the research project shifted, and the “outcome measures” were transformed from a sterile academic paper to a emotionally evocative photo essay I produced that is infused with poetry and the words the Kia7as approved that reflected the meaning-making and influence of the language nest for the children, for themselves and for me, the privileged witness. Research, in this instance then, became a vehicle for giving depth and substance to the language nest program by providing visual representations of the people committed to it. It also provided a glimpse into the traditional social fabric of the Splats’in through the powerful images of the interrelatedness between the Kia7as and the children.

Importance of the Splats’in Language Nest: Indigenous Education

According to McCarty (2003), research in the fields of education, linguistics, anthropology, and cognitive psychology agree on this point: students who enter school with a primary language other than the national or dominant language perform significantly better on academic tasks when they receive consistent and cumulative academic support in their native/heritage language (p. 149). This is certainly one of the most significant gifts of the Kia7as to the community’s children; but also to the health, sustainability, and growth of the community itself. This model invests the wisdom and expertise of the Kia7as directly into the children, who in turn reap the layered benefits of developing a strong sense of identity, appreciation for and competence in their mother-language, and all the well-documented neurophysiological and psychological benefits of bonding and attachment (Neufeld & Maté, 2005) with Elders who care deeply for their development and well-being.

Unfortunately, there are some significant issues that temper the effectiveness of this unique model. Of primary importance is the decline of fluent speakers in the Secwepemc Nation (George Manual Institute, 2004), and specifically in the Splats’in community. A language assessment done in 1999 revealed that of the approximate 650 members of the Splats’in community, there were only 23 fluent speakers left, and of these most were over the age of 65 and many had chronic health problems (Cook & William, 2004).

Another cogent issue is the impact (and I use this word strategically here) of residential schools. While not all students of residential schools experienced negative effects (Sinclair, 2000), many who survived were devastated as they experienced the imposed legacy of intergenerational trauma; including alcoholism and drug addictions, chronic health problems, depression, and an impeded ability to parent due to the physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse perpetrated upon them (Chrisjohn & Young, 1997; McKegney, 2007; Sinclair, 2004). One of the goals of residential schools was complete assimilation and the result was almost complete cultural genocide (Sinclair, 2004; Walmsley, 2005). For the Splats’in Child Care Society, this means that many of the community’s families are suffering with chronic issues that manifest in a variety of ways in the language nest. Some examples include the challenge of providing appropriate care and developing adequate curriculum for children who are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit disorders, and attachment disorders, which present as a variety of behavioural issues requiring specific intervention skills.

Additionally, one of the most significant issues for the language nest program is the lack of funding. Not only is there inadequate funding for child care provincially, the Splats’in Child Care Society feels a tighter pinch due to the extra resources some children require; needs that can be traced directly to the intergenerational effects from residential schools. Because the child care centre must be financially creative to meet the needs of these children and families, the language and cultural programs are often the last to get funded even though they are identified as a priority (Cook & Williams, 2004).

The Importance of the Language Nest to Indigenous Early Childhood Education

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Curtis and Carter (2000) ask us to consider Whitman’s perspective regarding the significance and influence of what children see around them, how we as early childhood educators are beholden to carefully consider what children are exposed to as indicative of the kind of people they grow up to be. When I presented this quote at the ECEBC conference, an Aboriginal participant confirmed that this was indeed his experience. He had grown up in the context of an alcoholic and abusive home as a result of his parents being residential school survivors. He described how his children’s children attend a culturally relevant child care program in his community, and the difference he sees in their self-esteem, their happiness, and their attachment to their family. This man summarized the critical importance of the Splats’in language nest: “If only someone had taught me my language, told me I was worthy of a loving and healthful family and community, I might never have suffered the tortured pain of causing harm to my own children.” This man shared his story and tender tears in his conviction, as demonstrated by the Kia7as, that the language nest model is a critically important and ethically responsible way to provide Indigenous early childhood education.

Joani Mortenson, MSW, RSW, is the assistant field education coordinator in the School of Social Work at University of British Columbia, Okanagan.


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