Language Revival: Interview with Khelsilem Rivers By: Thipiziwin Young


“I believe that the nations of this land have much to learn and share with each other.  I am inspired by the language work that is being done by Khelsilem and feel fortunate to live in this day and age, where we can create awareness and create allies through technology, we can share each other’s stories, encourage and learn from each other.”

–Thipiziwin Young


I come from a large family. This is an understatement since a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh family is unlike a Western idea of family. First-cousins are siblings. The parent’s siblings and their first cousins are all aunties and uncles. Grandparents, their siblings, and their first cousins are all grandparents. The sibling’s (which includes first cousins) children are all nieces and nephews. I then have the dubious honor of having dozens of siblings, hundreds of auntie’s and uncle’s, and numerous relatives.

My people are Sḵwx̱wú7mesh. On my maternal grandparents lineage I am also of “The-Kwak̓wala-Speaking-People” who are called Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw. I became attracted and passionate for decolonization and building alternative models of Indigenous resurgence a few years ago. I do language revitalization as a pathway to action and freedom for my people for the past 3 years. I continue to work in my own nation, as well as with neighboring peoples’ to shift the language decline of our most precious gift: the language.

Language Journey:

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim (Squamish Language) is taught in the community pre-school, elementary schools, and secondary schools — albeit unsuccessfully. I say unsuccessfully because I gauge language revival successes based on whether we are creating fluency. I have yet to find an Indigenous language program that has carved out space within the mainstream education system (that isn’t immersion) to be successful under this criteria My anecdotal evidence to this lack of success is that I never became fluent through my 11 years in the compulsory education system, and no one else in my community has either. It is not without value though. I learned culture, community, history, traditions, and part of who I am as a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh stémexw (Squamish person) from these 1-2 hour a week classes.

Three years ago I became aware of a language revival method called “Where Are Your Keys?”. This dramatically altered my vision on how to become fluent and how to reverse the decline of my ancestral language. It was especially important given the context of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim — we have half a dozen fluent speakers left in the world. This is a situation many Indigenous communities face as it is predicted 500 of the world’s languages will go extinct in the next 25 years.

The “Where Are Your Keys?” method though focuses on fluency, rapid language acquisition, visual/auditory/kinesthetic learning styles, and incorporating hand-actions/hand-signs as an aid for memory recall. It has developed a pattern language called “techniques” that are simple but complex so that we can teach people how to teach people. “Language revitalization has two main issues. First is we have no new generations of speakers being raised with the language. The second is that we aren’t creating enough new teachers fast enough.” says Where Are Your Keys? Founder Evan Gardner. Where Are Your Keys? has set out to find a way to solve these two issues. I’ve used the techniques and methods for 3 years and achieved considerable success. There is still more work to do, but it’s on the path towards fluency and full blown language reawakening.


“Languages don’t die in healthy communities” says language revitalization activist April Charlo. As a friend and colleague in the language revival work, she’s become acutely aware of how languages sustain themselves in healthier communities. The context for our languages declining and not surviving is that Community (as a structure of belonging) is broken. There’s a myriad of reasons why that a lot of Indigenous people are familiar with. Thus part of the work in reclaiming our languages is reclaiming Community. To revitalize our language is to re-build our community, and when we re-build our community, we can revitalize our language. They are both simultaneous and integral to each other. Actually creating fluent speakers and having the language sustain itself is the easier part — the hard part is healing, creating wellness, ending dysfunction, becoming aware of our lateral-violence’s, and creating more belonging in our communities. If and when we accomplish the later, reviving our language (or sustaining them as alive languages) will be way more simple.

What Is Next:

In my community we are working towards developing a language immersion academy where 10-15 participants will do full-time language immersion for 12-18 months with a living allowance to fully dedicate themselves and immerse themselves in the work. The intention is to begin creating an adult generation of fluent speakers to act as language apprentices able to pass on the language to a new generation of (potentially) fluent speakers. As a step towards this project, we are creating a language immersion house where 5 participants from the community will live together in a language immersion house for 12 months to become fluent in the language. We are developing a crowd-funded campaign, fundraising events, and community mobilizations to really create a shift in the decline of my peoples and other Indigenous languages.

Khelsilem Rivers is a community organizer by passion, language revitalization activist by need, and graphic designer by choice.

Khelsilem was born in North Vancouver, BC in 1989 and recently given the names Sxwchálten and X̱elsílem by his paternal grandmother, Audrey Rivers (Tiyáltelut) of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh. Khelsilem is also honoured to uphold the ‘Na̱mg̱is T̓sit̓sa̱ł’walag̱a̱me’ name of Tłaḵwasik̓a̱n. Influenced heavily by his grandmother, he always believed in the importance of being Indigenous, despite encroachment of a foreign culture, society, and civilization. In this regard, Khelsilem has pursued avenues where he can strengthen all aspects of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw ways.

Thipiziwin (Yellow Lodge Woman) Young, Wiciyena Dakhota and Hunkpapha Lakhota.  Born and Raised on Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota.  Currently one of two Lakota Language Activities Instructors in The Lakól’iyapi Wahopí (Lakota Language Nest) based out of Sitting Bull College.

Graduate of Sitting Bull College, with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Native American Studies.  Graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Lakota Language Education Action Program at Sitting Bull College.

“I am a loyal mother to three, dedicated to my people, my languages, my community and my tiospaye.  I believe that every day is an opportunity to try to be a good relative.

I love my language, love my people, love my land, I love my history, out of the millions of people on this earth, we have the honor of being from Sitting Bull’s people, we have the privilege of being Lakhota and Dakhota.  I believe in the intelligence and capability of the children and people of Standing Rock, and of all indigenous communities, to revitalize, reclaim, restore and maintain their beautiful and Creator given languages.”

LRI-Language Preservation Thipiziwin Young

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