Snack time at the Lower Nicola Indian Band’s language nest program is a busy affair.

The table is full — kids as young as a couple months old are seated alongside their siblings, parents and elders — and until I stepped into the room, the talk around the table was strictly in n?e?kepmxcin, the traditional language of this First Nations community.

In many ways, the scene unfolding inside the house located next to the band hall in Shulus closely resembles an afternoon any child might spend at grandma and grandpa’s house. That much is by design, explained Aiona Anderson, the person who brought the language nest program to Shulus.

The language nest program currently runs three days a week in Shulus. It is geared towards young kids — ideally under five years old — but parents and elders also benefit from the courses, said Anderson.

“We’re emulate the home of spápze? and yéye? — grandpa and grandma. It’s more like a natural home, we play games, speak in the language and eat with them,” said Anderson.

LNIB elders serve as teachers and also help out with snack time — part of the language nest’s effort to make the program resemble a visit with spápze? (grandpa) and yéye? (grandma). (Cole Wagner/Herald).

Generations of people from the Lower Nicola Indian Band have had their language stripped away from them through the legacy of the residential school system, said Anderson, who attended residential school herself. Kids were punished for speaking n?e?kepmxcin, and gradually lost the ability to pass the language down to their children.

The language nest program is partially about empowering a new generation of speakers, but also serves as a program where elders can reclaim their traditional role as teachers within the community, said Anderson.

Lani Mackenzie counts herself among those who have seen the value in learning her people’s language.

“My mother went to residential school. She learned a bit of the words, but not a whole lot,” she said. “My vocabulary and my understanding has grown tons since I’ve come here.”

Her son is also apart of the language nest, and has picked up n?e?kepmxcin even quicker than her, she said.

“He’s at the age where he’s starting to talk. Every day he says something new,” she said. “Sometimes when the elders are talking, he understands more than I do — so he’ll get the joke before I will.”

Play time is also a key time for language learning. (Cole Wagner/Herald).

Language nest programs originated in New Zealand, explained Anderson, where indigenous groups have similarly dealt with the ongoing effects of colonization on their culture. The idea behind the programs is to reinvigorate the next generation to help a language survive, where it otherwise may have been lost forever.

“We have the opportunity to have something like this, where we can revitalize not only our language but our culture, our identities and our connection to each other and our community — and our pride in who we are,” said Anderson.

Provincial funding could lead to growth of language nests

The language nest in Shulus is the first of its kind among n?e?kepmxcin-speaking First Nations. But similar programs may soon be developed in other communities, thanks in part to a $50 million investment by the provincial government in language revitalization programs, announced as part of the B.C. government’s budget in February.

The funding will support local programs through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a First Nations-run Crown corporation with a mandate to support indigenous heritage programs. In addition to the language nests, the FPCC will aim to expand other community immersion programs such as the one-on-one mentor-apprentice program and the Silent Speakers program, which is geared towards those who understand but do not speak their language.

LNIB’s language nest received $21,652 through the FPCC in 2016, funding which helped the program get off the ground. The infusion of $50 million from the provincial government means the group can afford to support more language revitalization projects in communities across B.C.

“We’re really focusing on providing funding to support immersion type programs because we want to create new speakers,” said Tracey Herbert, CEO of FPCC. “That’s really important for language revitalization.”

The provincial funding will allow the FPCC to explore multiple language revitalization programs simultaneously across the province, and better co-ordinate programming across multiple communities, she said.

“The thing we’re really going to emphasize is coming together and collaborating between those communities that share a language, and really co-ordinating our work and being strategic about investments in the language,” said Herbert.

Which means that while the language nest in Lower Nicola is a first among n?e?kepmxcin-speaking First Nations communities, it might not be the last.