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History of the SENĆOŦEN Language

History of the SENĆOŦEN Language


The SENĆOŦEN alphabet was devised by the late Dave Elliott. Dave was born on the Tsartlip reserve in June 1910. Like many Saanich families of the day, he fished and traveled over the historical homeland of the Saanich. His family knew all of the places by their original SENĆOŦEN names. Dave once said, "I saw how our old people lived before our own speaking system was broken down. Our people were the wealthiest on earth. We needed nothing. We lived in a virtual paradise".

Then came regulations forbidding the Saanich People from fishing, hunting and food gathering over their traditional lands. Government policies of the day dictated that the families who were struggling to survive had their children taken away to residential schools. There, the Saanich children began to experience denial of the SENĆOŦEN language and culture. Over the years, this created a communication gap between those who were still at home speaking SENĆOŦEN and those who had begun to be educated and assimilated into the white education system.

In the early 1960's, Dave Elliott became a custodian at the Tsartlip Indian Day School, attended by most of the Saanich children. Dave recognized the rapid decline in the use of SENĆOŦEN and the knowledge of the language and culture. The late Phillip Paul led an initiative to establish the Saanich Indian School Board. The SENĆOŦEN language was immediately offered as part of the curriculum of the band operated school.

Realizing that without a method of recording the language it would eventually be lost, Dave began to write down SENĆOŦEN words phonetically. He soon discovered that upon returning to read previously recorded words, he could not understand what he had written. Dave studied with a Victoria linguist, learning the International alphabet and other orthographies. The main difficulty with these systems was that some of the complex sounds of the SENĆOŦEN language required numerous symbols to be represented, resulting in long and complicated words.

Dave decided to devise his own alphabet, using only one letter to denote each sound. He purchased a used typewriter for $30 and set out to make the SENĆOŦEN writing system accessible to his people. During the winter of 1978 the Dave Elliott SENĆOŦEN Alphabet was created. In 1984 the Saanich Indian School Board adopted the Dave Elliott Alphabet to help preserve the SENĆOŦEN language and history.

Dave Elliott's legacy is the revitalization of the SENĆOŦEN language. Today, Apple iMac computers with a TrueType SENĆOŦEN font are used extensively in the teaching of the language, both at ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School, and throughout the surrounding public schools of Saanich SD 63.

The B.C. Ministry of Education is advocating similar uses of technology elsewhere in the province as valuable tools in the task of revitalizing indigenous languages before it is too late.

See the Saanich episode of the Mushkeg Video Productions documentary series "Finding Our Talk" on APTN. This thirty minute video tells the story of the development of the SENĆOŦEN writing system from the first experiments on paper towels to the use of custom made computer software.

Home About the School History of the SENĆOŦEN Language
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