Salia Joseph

The Art of Language: Salia Joseph Opens Up Doors to Cultural Learning

“[Language learning] opened up something in me that let me land in myself more wholly and authentically. I don't need to look to anybody for validation or to fill any gaps in myself.I am a whole person. I can meet my own cultural needs,” Salia Joseph recalls. 

She lives in Vancouver and is the Executive Director of Squamish language nonprofit The Sníchim Foundation. Their work focuses on creating fluency through year long immersion programs in partnership with SFU as well as creating jobs for those who want to work in language revitalization. She took the language program herself and that led her to the role she’s in now. 

She also runs Host Consulting, a public art consultancy that liaises between artists and those commissioning public art projects to create more opportunities for Salish design and artists. Additionally, they do anti-racists critical dialogue, training and work in community. 

Her family is from Nanaimo and Squamish Valley and she grew up with her mom near Tsartlip First Nation. The work she does now is grounded in the way she expresses her joy and passions as a Squamish person. Growing up, with her father having left when she was young, she had a lot of questions around identity, belonging and race, being estranged from her community and unsure of where she belonged.

After high school, Joseph traveled for a few years before deciding to go back to school. She wanted to go to UBC but didn’t feel smart enough or capable of succeeding. She thought she should go to Capilano University instead and see how she did. “I think about how the messages that we're told when we're younger about our value, and our intelligence as Native people really permeates and stays true,” she muses. 

When she went to high school, she didn’t have great grades, but got straight A’s at Capilano University. She applied to UBC and got into the INdigenous studies program, gaining critical lenses to understand herself, her family and community. Her studies helped her let go of shame that wasn’t hers. After studying the theory of why languages matter, she decided to start learning her language. 

The experience was transformative and she started to see herself as a whole person instead of feeling fractured and she was full of inspiration. Walking into language class, she worried she would be the only person who didn’t know anyone, but she found that wasn’t the case.  

Through the program, she made lasting connections and stopped drinking. “We were listening to old tapes of people speaking the language, and it just felt like it felt like ceremony to me,” she remembers. The founder of the program asked her to help plan their galas. He was later elected to band council and she was asked to step up into the executive director role.  

During her tenure, Joseph has tried to create an organization that is responsive to the needs of language learner. She avoids a hierarchical structure and is moving to a four-day work week. Often people ask how long she has been speaking her language and she’s quick to share that it has only been a few years. 

Her learning journey didn’t stop with her Indigenous studies degree or her language learning credentials. Her work in public art consulting came about through mentorship from people in the filed. There was a big learning curve with all the paster plans, zoning bylaws, differences between munciipailties and other things to learn. “It feels like being a student again, because there's so much to learn,” she relays. 

“Language really helped me land in myself fully. That's why I really believe in the job and believe in keeping people in the job.”

Typically when she has doubts about going for an opportunity, she just applies and finds the voice of self-doubt has become quieter. To get over her fears, she has learned to acknowledge them and reflect on which parts of herself are telling her she doesn’t deserve what she wants. That helps her interrogate what’s holding her back.

As a parent, she aspires for her daughter to not have to “hunt as hard for the language” or to yearn to understand who she is. When her niece was little, she wanted to know the names of animals in their language and she struggled with it. That experience inspired her to learn her language so she can pass it on. She also wants her daughter to know, “there's a whole lot of ways to be smart and you can only judge yourself and value yourself based on the best versions of yourself that you want to be.”

When she was a child, Joseph encountered a lot of casual racism and stereotypes about her people and she didn’t realize how many of them were doing amazing things with their weaving, fishing and traditional knowledge. That’s why she feels celebrating Indigenous excellence is so important for the wellness of Indigenous youth. “I think the more we tell young native people that they're beautiful, they come from beautiful people, and they're so worthy, the better our futures will be, but it seems like we've come a long way.,” she reflects. 

To take care of herself now as an adult, she lifts weights, goes to counseling, spends time outside every day, whether it’s a walk or time in the woods or on the land. Spending time with her family recharges her spirit and for fun, she likes to binge watch Selling Sunset. 

When she needs inspiration, she looks to the yong people in her community, to the overlapping generations of community members young and old and to her spiritual experience delivering  a baby at home. She’s inspired by what her daughter brings to the world and the connection she has to elders. “There’s so much knowledge in our communities, and there's so much brilliance that brings me to my knees every day,” she beams. 

Learning her language let her land in herself more wholly and authentically. Salia Joseph didn’t need to look to anybody for validation or to fill any gaps in herself. She finally saw herself as a whole person and one able to meet her own cultural needs. As the executive director of a language program, she’s helping others feel that for themselves and appreciate the beauty of their culture and as a public art consultant, she’s helping people share that beauty with the rest of the world.   

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    August 22, 2023
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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