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Envisioning shxwqwәltәn – The Sounds of Musqueam

Joyce LeCompte Mastenbrook
Joyce LeCompte Mastenbrook

December 31, 2010

With the support of a Center FLAS Fellowship, and the generosity of the Musqueam people of Vancouver, British Columbia, I was able to spend the year studyinghәńq’әmińәm, the downriver dialect of Halkomelem, a Coast Salish language spoken along the Fraser River and the east side of Vancouver Island. My aim is to develop a deeper appreciation of the linkages between language and the way we perceive our relationships to the land.

For example, there is the elaborate vocabulary and poetics of the language that reflect the Musqueams’ maritime orientation. With practice, words like sliqwәl (smooth, calm water) and k’wәwyәkw (fish hook) begin to roll off the tongue and into the mind in such a way that one begins to see the landscape differently. Our instructor, Musqueam elder Larry Grant, emphasizes the importance of preserving the distinctiveness of the up and downriver dialects – the fuzzy boundary between them apparently coinciding with the upper limits of the salt water’s slack tide, which makes an upriver canoe journey relatively effortless.

Memorizing Musqueam geography has been an important part of our education, and one place in particular has become especially significant to me. Mәqw:em, or Camosum Bog, figures prominently in Musqueam history. Their origin story tells of a two-headed monster, seelthkey, who slithered down to what is now the main Musqueam Reserve, leaving the Musqueam creek bed and a plant “unlike any other” in its wake. The plant is called muthkwey, and this is how the Musqueam people got their name. What is left of the bog is now being restored, and culturally important plants like Labrador tea and bog cranberry are flourishing there. It is, however, unsettling to see no mention of the Musqueam people on any of the bog’s interpretive signs, which instead emphasize the importance of preserving what’s left of this unique and “pristine” ecosystem. I wonder if it really is possible to restore mәqw:em without also acknowledging the history and knowing something of the language of this place.