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VIDEO: Here's the meaning — and pronunciation — behind the təmtəmíxʷtən/Belcarra Park name

New Tsleil-Waututh name helps to preserve the language for Indigenous people while informing park visitors about local history.

Some First Nation language speakers say they sympathize with Tri-City residents trying to make sense of the new name for Belcarra Regional Park.

The 1,100-hectare park which sees a million visitors a year, was recently named təmtəmíxʷtən/Belcarra Regional Park, in a ceremony recognizing the long association the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation has with the area.

It’s a name complicated by letters most people don’t recognize — such as a miniature ‘w’ and upside down ‘e.’

But the strangeness can be easily explained, according to Gabriel George, Tsleil-Waututh Knowledge Keeper and director of treaty lands and resources for the Coast Salish Nation, who has spent years learning his native language.

George, who had to learn his own language from the few hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language speakers in Metro Vancouver, because his father and grandfather were forbidden to speak it at residential school, said the alphabet used in First Nations words is based on the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The letters may look strange, but are internationally recognized phonetic symbols developed in the late 19th century used to describe sounds.

HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE NEW NAME

Looking at the word, it’s hard to know how to pronounce it, for those who are not linguists.

“It’s not an easy one, I recognize it,” said George, who is the grandson of noted actor Chief Dan George and the great grandson of Chief George Sla-holt.

George told the Tri-City News he first had to be “immersed” in the language and then, like a child learning to read, began to make the leap to understand the connection between the spoken and written Tsleil-Waututh language.

Each of the symbols is related to a sound, said George, so təmtəmíxʷtən is pronounced “tum-tum-ee-hw-tun.” 

“Once I had a bit of fluency and turned to the word list, I could get it but I wouldn’t say it was easy.”

In the future, he hopes there will be recordings of the proper pronunciation of təmtəmíxʷtən in the park so people can more easily understand the word, what it means and how to say it.

With First Nations languages at the risk of dying out, it’s up to the few fluent speakers to pass on their knowledge.

Piecing together the endangered Blackfoot language is the work of Eldon Yellowhorn, SFU’s founding chair of Indigenous Studies, who is creating a digital resource for young people to learn Blackfoot.

His students are creating building blocks of Blackfoot words that can be pieced together to make a sentence that can be read and sounded out.

INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET CAN BE LEARNED

With a language that has almost died out, it’s important to find a way to preserve it and the International Phonetic Alphabet is an important innovation, Yellowhorn said, because it enables new language learners to say the word correctly.

While some First Nations use English letters to spell out the words, including Blackfoot, that's not the case everywhere.

"People in the past, fur traders or RCMP, people when they first encountered native people, they’re trying to write these words with roman orthography; anthropologists and linguists tried to make their attempts," he said. "The international linguist standard is a new innovation."

This strange-looking phonetic alphabet may be hard to learn but not impossible, he said, and could be the key to unlocking First Nations languages.

“It seems a little bit frustrating — but when you are looking at it as a professional linguist, it makes perfect sense.” 

Using First Nations words for places is common in B.C., with many place names adapted to the English alphabet and pronunciation.

But George says the English pronunciation is not always correct. 

Getting the proper pronunciation from a fluent speaker and using the International Phonetic Alphabet to preserve the sounds in writing is important for preserving the language.

And it makes sense to use proper First Nations words to describe the lands, according to local historian Ralph Drew.

Drew, a former Belcarra mayor who has written several books of local history, acknowledged in his own research the Tsleil-Waututh Nation have been at the regional park's area for thousands of years and agrees with the name change.

“It is a historic local name and should be recognized,” Drew said, noting an archeological dig at the park conducted by SFU graduate student Art Charlton in the early 1970s revealed a cache of tools, including stone tools and and slate knives, dating back more than 3,000 years.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation used to have villages all around Burrard Inlet, but a combination of colonial policies creating reserves, as well as small pox and influenza that decimated the population, restricted their land to North Vancouver.

Once 10,000 strong, according to oral history, there are now about 500 people in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose members call themselves 'People of the Inlet.'

EARLY BELCARRA PARK NAME WAS GAELIC

Belcarra got its English-sounding name from a prominent Irish lawyer, William Bole, who acquired land in the area in the 1880’s, while a road builder named John Hall acquired District Lot 229 in Belcarra, that later became the park’s picnic area. 

Once known as the wintering spot for the Tsleil-Waututh for ceremonies and feasting, the picnic area was only briefly in Hall's hands.

For two months after Hall received his letters patent for the property in September 1882, he went to prison for manslaughter for killing his mother-in-law, a local Tsleil-Waututh woman.

It was an argument over money, according to Drew, quoting the newspaper accounts of the day. 

Hall transferred the land to Bole, his lawyer, who gave the area the Gaelic name “Belcarra” meaning “fair land upon which the sun shines,” according to Drew.

In 1971, the area became a regional park.

Since the park came into the hands of Metro Vancouver, there have been efforts to acknowledge Tsleil-Waututh habitation, even a song (Tum-Ta-Mahy-Tun) was written for Belcarra Day in 1992 and a road to the park (Tum Tumay Wheuton Drive) was named for the local First Nation.

Now though, the land can finally rest under the name the Tsleil-Waututh Nation says more accurately reflects its history — təmtəmíxʷtən or "the biggest place for all people."

“A lot of our Tsleil-Waututh history ties into that village site," said George. "To have that name recognized by Metro Vancouver and Vancouver and British Columbia, it means a lot."