Asked how long she’s been a teacher for, Enderby’s Annie Cook says “since I was born.”
The Splatsin elder is one of few remaining speakers of Secwepemctsin, the language of the Secwepemc Nation. She began teaching Secwepemctsin at the band’s Shihaya School in the 1990s as part of an effort to preserve her First Nation’s spoken culture, educating through the ‘total physical response,’ a language teaching method that incorporates physical movements that mimic the way infants learn their first language.
Cook has helped document about 2,500 Secwepemctsin words at the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn Society daycare, where she now works.
Keeping the oral language alive in written form and in the minds of youth has proven a tall task.
“A lot of people have given up, they tried every which way to teach the language, but people just drop out because people make them write in the language,” Cook told the Morning Star. “I think we started with 100 people and then just four or five stayed (with it).”
Those who do keep up with the effort to reclaim the language require a good deal of patience.
“They internalize what I am talking about and they finally figure it out if they hear it 70 times seven.”
Here she makes a Biblical reference. In Matthew 18:21-22, “70 times seven” is the number of times Jesus tells his disciples that Christians should forgive others.
But this Christian idea of forgiveness is complicated by history. for Cook, in light of the 215 children’s remains found in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school and the hundreds more at other sites in Canada, forgiveness must be asked for from the highest reaches of Catholicism.
“First the Catholic Church and the Pope have to ask for forgiveness,” she said. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has said Pope Francis will meet with Indigenous delegates – including elders and residential school survivors – for an apology at the Vatican in December.
Cook is herself a Christian, and she admits it’s been hard to square her faith with the Roman Catholic Church’s historical role in Canada’s residential school system.
“It took me a while to believe in this God thing, you know. Because I thought all churches were Catholic.”
Cook and her sister Donna were forcibly taken to the Cranbrook residential school when they were six and seven years old.
“They took me from Johnson Creek, Mara,” she recalled. “The RCMP came there with their lights flashing… came there and scooped us up.”
She says the police, using then-chief William Edwards as a translator, told her parents they had to give up their children to the school or they’d be jailed.
“My mother’s trying to hang onto me and she’s screaming,” she said. “They had to hand us over.”
Cook’s sister has since written a book about her experiences at the school – ‘school’ being a generous term for what they were taught there, she said.
“Being taken at the age of six, you’re brainwashed even to be ashamed of your people, that you’re not like them.”
Memories of her years at the school aren’t easy to forget; Cook’s memory is exceptionally sharp. She can still call upon memories of planes coming over the Enderby Cliffs during the Second World War – memories from when she was just nine months old.
“I have a good memory because my mother and father talked to me a lot,” she said, recalling Secwepemc fairy tales told by the hour.
“My grandmother would set me down in the evening…two hours every night I had to sit there!”
Through hours of daily verbal communication, Secwepemctsin made its way through the generations in Cook’s family.
Cook knows that trauma from the residential schools will also be passed down many times over.
“My children seven generations down, they will live it,” she asserted. “It will take seven generations to get rid of it.”
In passing on Secwepemctsin to the younger generations, community plays are some of Cook’s favourite tools.
Plays such as Tuwitames, a 2014 production by Runaway Moon Theatre and director James Fagen Tait. The play tells the story of a young man who was adopted at birth and separated from his community, Splatsin.
The protagonist travels to Splatsin where, according to Runaway Moon’s synopsis, “he learns how the ’60s Scoop and residential schools led to his own adoption, and we see with him how this still affects the community today.”
Now, close to 80 years old, Cook is still affected by vivid memories of the residential school. She used to hate the fog that settles over the valley every fall. “It just brings you back to the day in September when they’d take children away by the truckload.”
Cook is currently awaiting an improvement in the community’s COVID-19 numbers so she can return to teaching 64 young students at the Tsm7aksaltn daycare.