Nexwlélexm: Learn to love and pronounce Bowen’s original name

In 2003 I spent a week in New Zealand working with a Maori economic development organization to host an entreprensureship conference.  At the beginning of the conference, the welcome to the territory was given by a young woman who spoke and sang beautifully in Maori about her homeland. An Elder sitting next to me burst out laughing during the speech. When I asked her what was funny, she replied “I haven’t a clue what this young one is saying. I love that she speaks her language.” The revival of Maori means now they young people are fluent and their Elders, who can’t understand them, couldn’t be more proud.  

Khelsílem is a young Squamish man who had a similar epiphany on a trip to New Zeland to study how Maori people were increasing fluency in their language. With only seven current fluent speakers of Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim (Squamish language), he was curious for ideas to increase that number.

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Using a novel set of language learning tools, including playing games and working with sign language, he began offering fluency classes in Squamish communities throughout the Squamish territory which runs from North Vancouver, all around Howe Sound and up the Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers. People loved the energy of the game nights and they began acquiring beginner levels of fluency much more quickly than in the more standard classroom-based language courses.  

Within a couple of years, Khelsílem had created a Squamish language immersion house and an organization to support his work called Kwi Awt Stelmexw, (disclosure: I’m an advisory board member). One of the more popular projects that Kwi Awt Stelmexw initiated was, a website and a map that collects and places Squamish place names back on the map of Howe Sound.

Among those places names are three that refer to Bowen Island. Kwemshenám’ is the name for Hood Point and is the source of the “fast drumming ground” translation that many people have heard about. It actually refers to ‘thumping’ or ‘stomping’ feet and relates to the story of how the blacktailed deer was created there when Xáays, the Transformer brothers, visited the island and changed a hunter into the deer. It’s said that if you put your ear to the rocks as the tide is coming in over the bar between Hood Point and Finnistere Island, you can still hear the man’s footsteps, running from the Transformers.

Another name that comes from historical sources is Kwil’ákm or Xwlil’xwm, which has been used for the name of Snug Cove, Deep Bay or indeed the whole island. Over the years that name has also been mis-translated as “fast drumming ground” and also “calm bay” but there is confusion about that meaning.  It is almost certainly derived from the name Nexwlélexm .

 The name Nexwlélexm is referenced in different forms by both Louis Miranda and August Jack Khatsahlahno, two 20th Century elders who shared knowledge of their place names with historians. It’s the one everyone wants to know about because that is the name that refers to the whole island.

“Uncle Louis Miranda was the one that remembered the name ‘Nexwlélexm,” Khelsílem told me in a recent interview. “It’s an old name that comes from an older version of our language.”  

It’s unclear what the name means or refers too, in much the same way that the original meaning of “Canada” has been confused over the years. Nevertheless, Nexwlélexm appears to be the most reliable modern day spelling for the land mass that is now called Bowen Island.

But how do you say it?

Many Squamish language sounds are not found in English, but they are found in other European languages.  The “x” is pronounced like the like the gutteral “ch” Yiddish word “chutzpah” or the Scottish word “loch.”  When there is a “w” after the “x” you round your lips. Given that pronunciation, Nexwlélexm  is roughly pronounced “Nech-lei-lechum.”  You’ll be forgiven if you say it “Neck-lele-coom.”

I asked Khelsílem why he thinks we should be using these names.  

“It’s important because if the horrible effects of colonization hadn’t happened, these are the names we would be using to refer to these places. When we use these names we are re-imagining what this country would have looked like if tremendous harm hadn’t happened. Using the names is an act of healing the damage,” he says.

In short, it’s a simple step everyone can take towards advancing reconciliation. 

“The invitation is to adopt a new normal and make these names just part of the vernacular that Islanders use to describe their home,” Khelsílem says. “So far the Squamish Nation hasn’t asked for the name of Bowen Island to be changed, but if they did, it would be nice if Islanders were the ones to petition for it to happen because they’d been using the names.”

I asked if Khelsilem would make a short video to teach the pronunciation of the most ancient names for Bowen Island.  He’s squeezed it in to his schedule - after teaching a Squamish language immersion course at Simon Fraser University 6 hours a day, 5 day a week. Fifteen students with an average age of 21 have devoted eight months of their lives to becoming fluent in their language.  In doing so, Khelsilem says, he’s significantly increasing the base of fluent speakers within the Squamish People.

“At the end of the year, we will have doubled the number of mid level novice speakers of this language,” he said.  “In three years, we will have 45 young people well on their way to everyday fluency.” He has plans to build a language centre to support Squamish language learning and activities, modelled on a cross between traditional Squamish longhouses and the Maori maraes he saw in New Zealand.   

It’s a remarkable vision and an inspiring commitment to increasing the use of the language of people in whose land we live.  Robert Bringhurst once described our original Squamish place name as “a stony protuberance of meaning cloaked in a forest of evergreen consonants.” Just as we have come to love the forest and the rocks of this place perhaps we can come to love the original names too.

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