For more than five decades, Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips has worked to preserve her language, and she remains the last surviving fluent speaker of Upriver Halq’emeylem, the language of the Sto:lo people.
At 80, Phillips has now outlived all those with whom she spoke Halq’emeylem but she has been working hard to keep the language alive.
Last week, on June 12, she was honoured in a blanketing ceremony held at the University of the Fraser Valley’s National Indigenous People’s Day event held in the Student Union Building on the Abbotsford campus.
Phillips was honoured along with Peggy Janicki, an Indigenous mentor teacher in the Mission school district.
Phillips was born in her home village of Cheam in 1939 but her mother died giving birth.
She was brought to Seabird Island where she was raised by the Peters family, who were fluent Halq’emeylem speakers.
The mother who raised her wanted to participate in the Elders Language Circle at the Coqualeetza Education Centre, but needed Elizabeth to translate for her as the elder only spoke Halq’emeylem. For Phillips, her language skills were kept sharp as she was immersed in conversational sessions with elders several decades older than her.
For her efforts to ensure that current and future generations can speak Halq’emeylem, the UFV recognized Phillips in 2018 with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
As a child, many in her community spoke Halq’emeylem, but after residential school experiences, the children came home not knowing their language. Eventually only the elders could speak it.
Phillips has now devoted over half her life to trying to save her ancestral language, and generously helps anyone who wants to learn it.
She worked at the Coqualeetza Education Centre on efforts to preserve the language, starting in the 1980s. These days, she regularly visits Halq’emeylem classes offered by UFV.
More recently, Phillips and the late Xwiyólemot Tillie Gutierrez and linguist Susan Russell co-authored Talking in Halq’eméylem, Documenting Conversation in an Indigenous Language, published in 2017.