Some of Ben Spencer’s favourite memories with his grandparents are the summers he spent with them in Kitkatla, where he grew up, harvesting berries and fishing.
“They would speak Sm’algya̱x with us all when we were out there and tell us the name of the berries and whatnot. That was my biggest memory, fondest memory of my grandparents because they were the only ones that spoke Sm’algya̱x with us.”
Spencer, now 72, teaches the Sm’algya̱x language to students throughout Prince Rupert’s school district, keeping one of the thousands of Indigenous languages on the verge of extinction alive, he said.
More than just words spoken, Spencer said the Sm’algya̱x language is a tool.
For the first 20 years of his life, he didn’t know Sm’algya̱x, but now it’s a language he can pass down to the next generation, allowing the youth to connect with their culture.
“Now I have this as a tool to share with the children so that they don’t get hurt the way we did … I was just fortunate enough that my grandparents and other elders in our community spoke the language every day,” said Spencer, who explained that he wasn’t allowed to speak Sm’algya̱x in Indian Day School, nor were his parents who survived residential school.
“I wish I could have recorded him more,” speaking of his father.
School District 52 began teaching Sm’algya̱x around 30 years ago and Spencer said he joined as a teacher maybe halfway through. The language is taught to all students from kindergarten through Grade 5.
After that, the students choose what courses they’d like to continue.
“Our Sm’algya̱x language is keeping up with the French [language] … It’s working quite well … [The students] really enjoy it.”
Spencer met the French teacher when they started working together.
Since then, they’ve become good friends, with the French Immersion program being “quite supportive” and teaching their classes about the Indigenous culture and traditional ways.
This includes field trips along the Butze Rapids Trail, where students learn about harvesting and medicinal plants.
“Taking them right out there is how they learn quickly,” as students can ask how to say the names of plants in Sm’algya̱x, Spencer explained.
Spencer travels throughout the school district teaching students Sm’algya̱x and has seen a lot of changes throughout the years since he started.
“The most we’ve had in there was about 30 students in one class. So that’s quite big,” referring to one of the Sm’algya̱x language high school classes.
Spencer encourages parents to get involved in their children learning Sm’algya̱x.
“The main thing that we try to do is get [the students] to be connected to our culture … and know they belong there.
One of the things that I’ve heard from my grandparents is to learn about other cultures so that we can make connections with them. Very plain and simple. To understand other cultures, to learn along with their children.”
Spencer went on to say that even helping their children with their homework, say filling out their family tree, helps the students have a sense of belonging, knowing where they came from.
“The children are part of the history because now they’ve learned. They’re learning how to read and write [Sm’algya̱x].”
Spencer said for the future, he’d love to see cultural centres in the schools, allowing for further education.
“I’d like to see some cultural stuff … Like a smokehouse and a garden.”
Along with passing along the language, Spencer enjoys drumming, although he said it’s been a while since he’s done any drumming.
Still, as the school year wraps up, he’s excited to get out camping with his family this summer, where he’ll be able to teach his family Sm’algya̱x as well, including his granddaughter, Emily Claire Campbell-Spencer who is 10 years old.
Spencer’s wife, Theresa, has picked up bits of Sm’algya̱x but offers something else quite extraordinary.
“She has a gift that she can sing the language.”