The Language of Place

“I am my own ancestor,” says Myia Antone, a Skwxwú7mesh language teacher, in this interview about land-based education and intergenerational love.

Interview—Casey Beal
Photos—Shayd Johnson

In partnership with

 

Myia Antone has found her gift. She’s embraced the responsibilities that come with it, and she can’t see herself doing anything else.

Antone is a Skwxwú7mesh language teacher and learner, passionate about land-based approaches to education. She is a key part of her community’s intergenerational language-learning program, which takes place on unceded traditional territory, north of the city of Vancouver. The program is primarily driven by a young crop of teachers like her, in their mid-to late twenties. Because she now spends upwards of 40 hours a week speaking Skwxwú7mesh (pronounced, roughly, “Squ-HO-o-meesh”), she admits that switching back to English “is now actually hard! I’m so grateful for that problem!”

Antone, a newly minted ambassador for The North Face, is also the founder of Indigenous Women Outdoors, a non-profit that creates opportunities for Indigenous women (queer, trans, woman-identifying) and Non-Binary Indigenous peoples to connect outdoors and receive training and mentorship in outdoor recreation. She took the day off to hike with her sister on a rainy morning in Skwxwú7mesh territory: “bushwalking” amid the wet salal and ferns, drawn toward one of the larger trees she’s found on her territory.

When she returns from the forest, she and I speak at length, covering themes of community care, land-based education, and responsibility to future generations. Antone tells me that when she’s outside on her territory, she feels she could be 20 years in the future or 100 years in the past. She reflects on what it means to decolonize outdoor culture and support intergenerational healing. And she shares her profound gratitude for those in her community who worked to rescue their language from the brink of colonial destruction, as a gift for those who will speak it for generations to come.

Note: Throughout our chat, Myia Antone used the words “Skwxwú7mesh” and “Squamish” interchangeably.

On language and drawing strength from previous generations 
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The [Skwxwú7mesh] language is something that really connects me to those who came before me and really connects me to those who come after me. In my language family, we talk a lot about how our language was passed down to us with so much care. And every day we speak the language, we’re wrapped in this love that our ancestors had for us. And now to be able to put that love and care back into the language—it is the love and care that we’re giving to the future generations.

The language that I speak is a lot different than what my ancestors two or three generations before me spoke, because language itself has its own spirit that evolves and breathes and is alive like we are. It is this really beautiful connection that is hard to even put into words.

Within Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim [the Squamish language] our idea of time is so different from Western concepts. For instance, we have the same word for “when” and “where.” Time and space, for us, are so different from Western ideas.

The idea that it was illegal to be speaking our language and to be doing our cultural practices—that wasn’t that long ago. It was like 50 years ago, 60 years ago, that it was illegal for us to be doing all of the things that I do every day now. And to know that there were Elders and people who went underground and kept our practices and our language alive. We’ve lost so much of our language. But there are still a lot of pieces that people held onto, and that’s the language that I’m learning. I don’t think there’s any English or Skwxwú7mesh word that would convey my feeling of gratitude. Because now we’re revitalizing our language and so many young people are learning it.

Those who had to go through so much to keep the language alive for us, they possessed an immeasurable amount of strength. And it’s cool to think that that strength is passed down through the language to us. And now that I speak it, I do feel more powerful as a Skwxwú7mesh woman. And I think that really emanates into every other piece of my life as well. I feel stronger in everything else that I do because of those who protected our culture and our practices and our language for us.

There’s this teaching I got from my uncle. My uncle is one of my favourite cultural teachers: he’s a language speaker, and he also taught me how to weave a hat. When we were weaving he told me that the best thank you I could ever give him was to teach someone else what he taught me. And so I really carry that forward in everything that I do, especially with language: whenever I learn a new word or a new concept or idea, I want to share it instantly. I want to teach people so that they can go and teach someone else too.

On the teachings of being outside
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I think getting outside is so important. The land itself, it really blurs the idea of time. When I’m outside and I’m on the land, there’s this moment—and I think about it often—it’s a moment where I’m like, “I . . . am my own ancestor.” It’s in the way that I am outside. I’m out on the land in the same places where my ancestors were, and I protect the land and love the land for those who have yet to be born and those who are coming.

When you’re outside, everything has its own perception of time. Trees have their own idea of what time is. I think about how a tree we saw today is a hundred years old, and to them this day is nothing, but this feels like a long day for us. You realize how perception is just so different for everyone and every living thing.

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I am a very strong believer in land-based education. I’ve done my own in the North, with the Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning.  I spent some time in the Northwest Territories living off the land with Dene Elders, community members, and scholars, learning how to hunt and fish. We were outside every day. That’s where teachings come from: the land and being outside. And I’m figuring out how to bring that land-based education into language learning because language is so based on land. The Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim mimics the sound of the wind on our territory. Language comes from the land.

On Indigenous Women Outdoors
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Indigenous Women Outdoors is a community that is of and for Indigenous women and nonbinary folks. It’s a space to come together and feel safe out on the land with each other. Right now we offer opportunities to be outside and in mentorships together. We also offer the chance to try a new outdoor sport that maybe someone hasn’t tried before for any number of reasons. There are many barriers that explain why some people haven’t tried skiing or rock climbing or mountain biking.

We have been offering mentorship programs that we hope empower people to be a mentor and a mentee. It’s not a one-on-one thing, more of a group mentorship, recognizing that everyone comes into these spaces with their own leadership and their own teachings, and allowing a space where hopefully people can share those teachings with each other.

It’s been a space to explore land together but also to explore identity. We all come into this program with different lived experiences, different identities, different ideas of what it means to be Indigenous and how to wear that proudly. To be able to come to an Indigenous-only space has allowed really deep conversations to flow really naturally on a ski hill—I don’t know if those conversations have happened there before.

And it’s fun! [laughs] I always forget to say that. You know, we get really deep and it happens so quickly. Especially our backcountry ski and snowboard program. We had some Squamish and Lil’wat women involved as well as Cree and other folks living on our territory, and even just going up the mountain, everyone just gets into these really beautiful deep conversations about what identity means to them because we are in a safe space together, we’ve created that space together.

Especially during COVID, a lot of people have been spending a lot more time alone, and self care is so important, especially when we are in this online world now so much. There is so much to be said about community care. Community care is self care. Getting out with sisters or aunties or cousins or new friends — it is its own form of self care and community care.

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On honouring Indigenous stewardship of the land
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I think the outdoors is a really beautiful space where we all can come together. I think Indigenous peoples are the stewards of the land, and there is no question about that in my head. As [Squamish] people, we’ve been living here for so long, we’ve created such a deep connection to these territories that of course we hold the knowledge about how to protect it and how to take care of it and how to live with these lands and waters in a way that is non-detrimental.

I think there’s so many different ways of [honouring Indigenous stewardship of the lands]. Learning Indigenous place names is really important. In many cases, mountain peaks and mountains in general and valleys and things like that are named after people who never stepped foot on these lands, and there’s not much of a story there. But when you learn Indigenous place names, not only are you breathing life into a language that someone tried to take away from us, you’re also giving power back to the stories and power back to the storytellers of those lands. Because a lot of our place names are stories, or are based on the plants that you find there.

On offering alternatives to the colonial ways of talking about outdoor recreation
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I think what I’m trying to do is to show that there are other perspectives and other ways of [enjoying outdoor recreation] that are safe and that take care of the land. But ours isn’t the only way to do it. We’re doing it one way and this is the way that I was taught and the way that I choose to move forward. I’m just bringing my lived experience and the lived experiences of those who came before me into the space and teaching what I can. And sharing what I can with those who are willing to listen right now.

As a Squamish woman, I can only speak from a Squamish perspective, and that could even be very different from that of a Lil’wat woman, whose territory is right beside mine. But when you are on Squamish territory there should be that space that’s held for Squamish knowledge and Squamish perspective and Squamish teachings.

On intergenerational healing
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I think what’s often forgotten in all that we’ve been seeing on the news is the intergenerational trauma that comes with what our ancestors were put through with residential schools and the potlatch bans and all the laws that made it illegal to be who we are.

There’s so much trauma that was passed down to us as Indigenous peoples, but there is also just so much intergenerational love that we carry. And we’ve survived so much because of that love, and I think love really surpasses any concept of time.

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I also think of how much intergenerational love plays into who I am and who I want to be in this world. Everything I do, I do for my future children; I’ve always wanted to be a mom. And learning my language, I was like, “I want to do this for my kids.” Learning our laws and learning how to protect the land, I do all of that for my kids and they’re not even here yet. And hopefully one day they will be.

Since its founding in 1968 by dedicated environmentalist Douglas Tompkins, The North Face has promoted the outdoor community by sponsoring expeditions to the highest summits and some of the most inhospitable areas of the planet. By supporting visionary ambassadors like Myia Antone, The North Face is committed to increasing access and building inclusive communities around outdoor exploration.

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