Notes on Language: At the Foot of W̱MIEŦEN

ArtsEverywhere asked poets Tim Lilburn and Philip Kevin Paul to write about their experiences as a student (Lilburn) and teacher (Paul) of SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ—the original tongue of the Saanich Peninsula.

Tim Lilburn

Behind the shed where I read and think, a ferned cliff, its Garry oak, and Native plum hold language as pitchers hold water. Some of this speech, I’m told, is older than the time of trees and ferns; some nouns come from before the last glaciation. Humans didn’t make these words, but the land itself, seeking linguistic form, did. If you know them, you can sense the words move in the trees, flowers and stones. In this state of unusual animation, they become porous to human attention, somewhat more available in a convivial way to you— ĆEṈÍL̵Ś (Garry oak), T̸EXEN (native plum).

To come to this place, to see it as an aide, indeed one’s extended body, I’ve discovered, isn’t an easy task. Autochthonicity, the capacity to come from one’s ground, lies at the end of a long, likely uncompletable walk. Meanwhile, climate change, the new reality, presses us. Will there be enough time, as seas rise and species meet extinction, to achieve the dispositional changes that will return us to the land? This seems to me the wrong question. A better one is: what does justice now ask of us? For me it is a discipline of contemplative attention within the natural world, which offers no strategic efficiency, yet nevertheless contains within itself the germ of the sole durable politics. It also could foster a conversational permeability, a Levinasian spirit of infinity, which would be marked by a modest ability to listen.

A Garry oak tree in silhouette. Photo by Tanya Sunshine.


I spend the morning pulling invasive species on the west slope of the mountain, Scotch broom, ivy, Spurge Laurel, Himalayan blackberry, all plants newcomers brought to this island to remind them of home. The vegetative expression of boundless nostalgia, an emotion allowed to speak over other feelings, digs into the land. These alien plants now spread over the cliffs without check. Winter, during the rains, is the best time to attack these plants, when the ground is saturated. But even then some of the stalks are so large, you can only clip them at the base with the big secateurs and hope for the best. If left unattended, the broom and ivy would cover the mountain, the ivy adept at smothering and killing trees. It’s especially thick at the northwest boundary of the park, where it abuts a block of houses, some homeowners encouraging it to climb their front yard oaks. You must exercise caution when extracting ivy and laurel here since the people in the houses find this activity suspicious, encroaching, a sneaking up on their property. Yanking broom and pulling English ivy is like removing colonial names from land forms. On municipal maps, W̱MIEŦEN is called Mt. Tolmie after a Hudson Bay Company employee; it is one of many sites in southern British Columbia and Washington State that bear this fur trader’s name.

I first met Kevin Paul in the late 1990s when he was a young poet studying at the University of Victoria’s Department of Writing with Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, and Derk Wynand. I was visiting Victoria to give a reading and asked him to send me some of his work, since I was then poetry editor at the literary review Grain. I was bowled over by the early poems I saw, many of which made it into his first book Taking the Names Down from the Hills, which went on to win the Dorothy Livesay Prize. This book was followed by Little Hunger, which received a Governor General’s Award nomination. Both books are attempts to express the nature of W̱SÁNEĆ culture and sensibility in the peculiar medium of the English lyric poem. I believe Kevin is one of the most talented writers of his generation. I re-met him in 2004 when I came to the University of Victoria to teach, and we’ve been good friends since. He became my language teacher a few years back, and I meet with him every few weeks to learn SENĆOŦEN, the original tongue of the Saanich Peninsula.

With the appropriate names for things, the trees, birds, plants “opened their eyes,” or so it seemed. This animation was a reduction of the distance between objects in the land and me, as well as an apparent shuffling aside on the part of oaks, stones, salal, which permitted space for me in the forest. While I struggle to speak phrases in conversation with my teacher, SENĆOŦEN is largely a chthonic language for me; I use it to address the place in which I live. It is a potent and calming spiritual power; the language seems to me to be a living being, instructor, trail-sharer, friend, source of companionable beauty, a larger, autonomous, communicating mind. And Kevin’s instruction has given me the true names for landforms I look at and walk in: P,KOLS (white tip mountain), TENEṈ (stirred, moved, slope), ṮIQENEṈ (place of blessing). By these names, I believe I have been introduced to some of the presences within this land, so that a relationship can enter its earliest stages. As well as being a poet, Kevin stands at the centre of a project of language restoration on the Saanich Peninsula and the Gulf Islands. With linguist Timothy Motler and other native speakers within his community, he is working to complete the first SENĆOŦEN dictionary, as well as a collection of traditional stories. This is courageous political, world-building work. From the names, the land beneath the used land rises up.


Could it be that the appropriately named land, the land showing itself in response to an ontological courtesy, is the agent intellect as the 13th-century Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi saw it, that more expansive intelligence, intimacy that is strangeness, there when one has lost enough, been broken sufficiently in intention, to be available for visitation? When I walk on PKOLS, the contesting gestalts align themselves, and I see what I must do; the place is a source of acute understanding in appropriateness. How much of an ethical self would I have if this experience weren’t possible, if these trees did not exist? True knowing isn’t premised on carefully monitored rational distance but on a being claimed that has little to do directly with choice. Learning an original language makes being claimed by a place more possible.


Europe came maimed to North America. The culture of the West had divested itself too completely of the more than 40,000-year-old homo sapiens attachment to a form of gaze that was the experiential core of the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution, its cosmologies, its artistic mimesis, its careful attention to animals, their emergence from the walls of caves. Europeans’ most recent stripping, a renunciation making modernity possible, was of Platonic orphism and monasticism’s most feral mysticisms, two platforms that would have sustained an absorbed look.

With these losses, Europe misplaced the capacity to begin conversations with other cultures with the esoteric. It has disciplined itself not to begin reflection with the state of contemplative absorption, taking this refusal as a sign of the achievement of the highest human state, an affect-reduced type of reasoning the eco-feminist Val Plumwood called hyper-rationality, the cognitive lymph of turbo capitalism. Thus it is unable to recognize non-intentional contemplative alertness, permeability, as a venerable and crucial form of thought. Little surprise then that its cultural occupation of the New World came to be totalizing. Appropriate language, first language, first voice, is an invaluable help to come home to the place where you are.

Photo by Tanya Sunshine.

Philip Kevin Paul

When Tim Lilburn asked me if I would teach him SENĆOŦEN, I was honoured. Aside from the friendship we had established by then, I had been an admirer of his writing for some time. Unlike much of the writing I enjoyed most then, native and non-native alike, his seemed more than many to be written nearly in SENĆOŦEN translation. In no other writing had I encountered such representations as “Deer sweating fanned pounds of light” and observations such as “Deer touch each other with their hooves as they eat,” both from “No One Remembers How to Do This.” This title, while in one sense masterfully clever, also sings in the direction of the losses my own people have been suffering, unspoken, for over a century. Every time we bury somebody, something we learned not to say is “forgotten.” The former quote above from “No One Remembers How to Do This” shows a reverence for nature that was still fundamental to W̱SÁNEĆ people and the W̱SÁNEĆ Dream in which I was raised. The latter quote portrays a practice among deer I have witnessed and which one of my teachers told me is what deer do to spread the scent of their last feeding stop among their herd—their family. Scent is their second strongest sense. Should they be separated from one another, you might observe them sniffing at each other’s ankle bones when they rejoin each other. This is where they tend to touch each other in times of rest. Of course their strongest sense is their hearing, a condition that comes from their creation, and their creation story is a lesson for all of us. One that is constantly being retold for those who are paying attention. Finally, from the same poem, Tim writes:

A wall has started to fall in you. It will take years to land.
A mule train carrying casks of tears works to the coast
through thick mountains.

What a wonder that someone could write in English what I’d sensed all my life, through my community’s losses, the ferociousness of becoming oneself in just such a time and just such a place!

But the similarities in and admirations for each other’s work are just part of the body one considers inviting through the door to sit and learn SENĆOŦEN. When deciding to teach someone SENĆOŦEN who isn’t a W̱SÁNEĆ person, the journey from accepting a student to actually sitting for a first lesson is considerable. In truth, it’s just as likely that I asked Tim if he would be interested in learning SENĆOŦEN and he accepted as it is possible it was the other way around. Whatever the case, I’m sure the acceptance was a simple, delighted, “Sure.” There. The easy part. For me, this was an opportunity to brush up on my SENĆOŦEN. No longer surrounded by SENĆOŦEN speakers and having few fluent or even partially fluent elders to turn to, my abilities had become what is known as “latent.” In other words, while my hearing and comprehension were still considerable, my speaking abilities had diminished greatly. What hadn’t diminished was the W̱SÁNEĆ that I was made of, the known but unheard part.

Recently, I was involved in a study in which I had the opportunity to read and listen to dozens of interviews with people who were learning their ancestral language as a second language. The study focusses on those learning in a mentor–apprentice model, and each language is native to what we now call British Columbia. In the successful pairings of mentor and apprentice, the apprentice inevitably remarks that something just “clicked” and quite suddenly they knew themselves better and felt healthier. I attribute this to what I called above “the W̱SÁNEĆ that I was made of.” It’s the unheard part that is entirely who we are. It seemed to me that these apprentices had been, in no small sense, living in a constant translation of their ancestral language and culture. The song of it all had been living beyond their detection because they were living their days in the “wrong language.” Because of this, they hadn’t realized how much they knew about themselves. Yet through the interviews, up to the clicking point, it became clearer and clearer to me that they were speaking and struggling in a different English. Despite the dispossession of their lands and removal of their languages through residential schools and other colonial intrusions, their elders still modelled for them the incorruptible parts of their culture and identity. And, after all, we mimic our models, good and bad, on the way to becoming ourselves.

So, between accepting Tim as a SENĆOŦEN student and sitting for our first lesson, it became quickly apparent to me that the language would only be the skin of what he would learn. The muscles, the bones, and the organs of it all would be the land the language rose from and, subsequently, the culture that once found itself in need of expressing. Because of this, our lessons became more back story and context than words or phrases. A word simple to the W̱SÁNEĆ heart often became a lengthy conversation. For instance, the word “HET,” while difficult to the English ear and mouth, speaks quite directly to the W̱SÁNEĆ Dream and my ancestors’ desire to refine themselves. HET offers the image of a snake standing ready to strike. Of course, in W̱SÁNEĆ, we have no poisonous snakes. Our snakes barely even have teeth to speak of. Striking, then, would seem a pointless act. However, the spiritual potency of snakes is one perceived in all of W̱SÁNEĆ. It’s not the physical strike of a snake that is dangerous, but the spiritual mark that is left by its intention to harm a person. This is also a metaphor: when one person wishes harm upon another, or is careless enough to loose an angry glance in someone’s direction, the harm has already been done. This is also HET. And it harms the person enacting and the one enacted upon. Certainly there are times and places where special attention is paid to forgoing such a reflexive act. On the other hand, knowing myself, I know also that my elders and my ancestors wished to outgrow such behaviours and their cause. There is much more to say about this, but one must imagine in a time and place such as mine, your culture is a being always with you, always paying attention to you, and between the two of you a mutual courtesy and respect is negotiated. Here is neither the time nor place to delve into this further. I can say, without reservations, that Tim has struggled with SENĆOŦEN-centric sounds far more than he has with W̱SÁNEĆ concepts and beliefs. I’ve witnessed him observe the otherwise casual, everyday gestures in the English-speaking world and give them the best SENĆOŦEN name. Immediately after, I’ve noted a pride or sadness change only his facial expression or, perhaps, his entire posture.

[pullquote]…the manner in which we ask “How are you?” in SENĆOŦEN translates literally in English as being closer to “Are you wholly here?”[/pullquote]When I think now about how to teach my language effectively, a few considerations roll to the top of the list. I remember speaking with a friend about the years he studied under accomplished Buddhist teachers. He recalled a moment with a particular teacher in which he became excited about what he had learned and felt ready to teach it. He asked his teacher directly if he was in fact ready to teach. His teacher remarked that only he, the student, could know that. He added a caution that if he were to teach carelessly and his student invited bad karma, through the manner in which he was taught, the karma would not be the students, but the teacher’s—a fairly convincing reason to be honest with oneself about where they are in their learning. I wish I had invited Tim into my community more fully, from the beginning, than I have. His experience of W̱SÁNEĆ in SENĆOŦEN or English I understand now is a necessary context for a whole understanding of my language. I also wish I had started Tim with full sentences, rather than single words. Through this, the context would have provided itself, and his ability to expand his use of SENĆOŦEN independent of me would have been greater. (What a great gift when a student returns to you with a sentence he’s invented himself!) For instance, the manner in which we ask “How are you?” in SENĆOŦEN translates literally in English as being closer to “Are you wholly here?” Finally, had I the chance to start at the beginning, I think I’d bring Tim to more places in W̱SÁNEĆ under their SENĆOŦEN name so that he could see and touch things and observe things flying across a particular skyline or swimming in a particular body of water, instead of encountering them first as they are on a page.

Photo by Tanya Sunshine.

As a final note on the disparity between SENĆOŦEN and English, a few conditions are worthy of note: the sounds in SENĆOŦEN aren’t the most difficult aspects to master. Really, the challenge is that English no longer has a single identifiable culture. How a person with English as their only language identifies him- or herself through it—I don’t know. SENĆOŦEN and other native languages, all in a similar state of fragility, do have one, identifiable culture. I would suggest that each language also has a singular history, but too often history now is treated like a solid, rather than the liquid that it is. In addition, languages serving the conditions of orality constantly live in context. Perhaps the long life of literacy in English is most guilty of removing its people from continuous context and, thus, responsibility. Researchable texts are as much an excuse to forget as they are a manner of remembering. Finally, the contrived setting (as much as it was) in which I’ve begun to teach Tim SENĆOŦEN is perhaps a lesser occasion to tell W̱SÁNEĆ stories, as is also the activation of a recording device or the opening of a fresh piece of paper. Our stories were formed and reformed according to the occasion in which they were being told. They were told when someone was born, when someone reached puberty, when someone died and so on…

[wp_biographia user=”Philip Kevin Paul” type=”excerpt”]

Filed Under: Articles & Essays, Inquiry


Tim Lilburn was born in Regina. He has published nine books of poetry, including To the River (1999), Kill-site (2003), Orphic Politics (2008) and Assiniboia (2012). His work has received Canada’s Governor General’s Award (for Kill-site), the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award and the Canadian Authors Association Award, among other prizes.


Philip Kevin Paul is a member of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation from the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. His work has been published in BC Studies, Literary Review of Canada, Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets and An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English.

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