To Make Things Better
Published17 November, 2020
Photo credit Tae Hoon Kim
Líl’Wat playwright Yvonne Wallace rediscovers her heritage with a one-woman show in Ucwalmícwts.
Yvonne Wallace sat on the double bed next to her grandmother. Lah, as everyone called her, was in poor health.
School-aged and eager to please, Wallace wanted to distract Lah from her pain. She reached for a school book — a beginner’s guide to Ucwalmícwts, the language of the Líl’Wat people.
Wallace mouthed the words slowly, taking her time with each letter. Lah, fluent in Ucwalmícwts, giggled at the sound of her 10-year old granddaughter’s attempts to speak their language.
“You’re not saying it right,” Lah said. “But keep trying.”
Wallace kept reading, struggling with the words, but savouring the chance to connect with her grandmother in Ucwalmícwts.
“It gave her happiness,” Wallace recalled. “She was proud of me, so that was imprinted in my memory.”
Nestled in a valley between snow-capped peaks, Mount Currie is located 40-kilometres northeast of Whistler. Wallace’s family of nine — her parents, three brothers, two sisters and a cousin — lived in the small community in a two-bedroom house.
It was a tight space for Wallace, who, as the only mixed-race child of the family, felt an undeniable distance from her siblings. She was four years old when her brother first called her a sama7 — a white person.
“I struggled with being the only mixed-heritage child in the home,” Wallace said. “And I struggled with feeling a lot of guilt and shame for not going to residential school with my older siblings and my cousin.”
She became a target. She was made to feel different. Despite identifying to her core as Lil’Wat, Wallace felt like she didn’t belong.
Lah’s home, which had an open-door policy for all her grandchildren, became a refuge. Wallace remembers spending her childhood there surrounded by abundant gardens, cherry trees, cows and pigs. She remembers holding on to Lah’s dress, following wherever she went. She remembers feeling safe.
“It was my home,” Wallace said.
Coming home: familiar surroundings and unexpected barriers
After high school, she moved to Toronto to pursue a career in theatre. Wallace worked hard but struggled to make ends meet. Opportunities were limited for a city so competitive and saturated. She got by developing plays, earning just enough to survive.
Then the news came: her mother was sick. It was time to move back, closer to home.
Back on the west coast, Wallace felt a deep pull to reconnect with her grandmother’s language. She tried enrolling in Ucwalmícwts language programs at post-secondary institutions in Vancouver. Each one told her the same — she didn’t meet their prerequisites required to study her own language.
Frustrated, Wallace reached out to Capilano University instructor Lisa Fisher at the Ts’zil Learning Centre — located back in her hometown of Mount Currie.
Fisher still remembers their first conversation, Wallace’s energy and desire to reconnect with her culture and language emanating through the phone.
“Barriers prevent people from moving forward,” Fisher said. “I wanted to get behind someone who was that passionate.”
Fisher helped Wallace enroll in the Lil’wat Nation Language and Culture course offered at Ts’zil. Wallace began commuting from Vancouver for the classes. Returning to the community she left years ago was not easy; going home meant confronting old memories of not being accepted, being a target, being called a sama7.
But the classes helped. They centered around excavating stories about the Lil’Wat and reconnecting with their shared identity. Her classmates checked in on her. Attending classes and forming new relationships with her fellow students became a healing journey.
“I started to look forward to going home,” she said.
Telling her story in her language
Her first course completed, Wallace enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Studies program (then known as Liberal Studies) at CapU. The program allows students to work with instructors to design their degree and create a unique graduating project.
Seeing an opportunity to tell her story while continuing to learn Ucwalmícwts, Wallace decided to write, direct, and perform a one-woman play for her project. Titled útszan (to make things better), the project required Wallace to study Ucwalmícwts to the point that she could create moments of fluency.
“My ancestors had the vision and foresight to develop a language program,” Wallace said, referring to the classes she took as a child. “I wanted to honour my teachers — you’ve given me the gift of all of this vocabulary, and I want to honour you by putting myself to task and speaking in sentences.”
The project would also make a university — a space where Indigenous culture and knowledge traditionally have been invisible — responsible for her journey in gaining language fluency. For Wallace, that was a specific and deliberate decision.
“I was asserting that Indigenous people belong in educational spaces, and that our knowledge is just as valuable as any curriculum that’s given,” Wallace said. “I value my community equal to the education I’m being taught.”
The story of útszan begins as the protagonist Margaret finds out that her Aunt Celia has had a heart attack. When she wakes up in the hospital, Celia refuses to speak English and asks for Margaret, who has moved away from her community. Margaret returns home to find out Celia will only communicate with her in Ucwalmícwts. Celia teaches Margaret their language, believing it will help bring her niece back into the family she left many years ago.
Wallace plays every role, her physical shape morphing and embodying each character. She switches seamlessly between English and Ucwalmícwts; Margaret’s grasp of the language becoming better and better as the story develops.
Margaret longs for her home but ultimately feels like she doesn’t belong; her journey mirrors Wallace’s own of reconciling her past.
Weaving so much of her personal life was risky, said CapU instructor Reg Johanson, who helped shape the story of útszan. Wallace had to strike a delicate balance between creating art that engaged her community while addressing truths the community might be hesitant to confront.
“How do you push and reveal the uncomfortable truths of the past, but also make the community proud?” Johanson said. “It astounds me how ambitious [the play] is. It’s courageous.”
Playwright and instructor David Geary, who served as the play’s dramaturg, describes theatre as sympathetic magic — ritual actions that imitate the real ones you want to bring about in the world.
“Theatre can be a representation of how we might live in a better way,” Geary said, and útszan — to make things better — does exactly this. It exposes. It heals. It makes a difference.
“Yvonne has created a ceremony that celebrates what theatre can be.”
Teaching Ucwalmícwts to a new generation
These days, Wallace still commutes between Vancouver and the Ts’zil Learning Centre, but this time as an educator. She is co-teaching a class similar in theme to the first course she ever took there. Her students range from 19 to mature, all with their reasons for attending. Whatever that reason may be, Wallace wants the course to help students get back in touch with their culture and identity, just like she experienced years ago.
Wallace admits teaching is a new skill she’s developing.
“I make up for it in enthusiasm,” she said, smiling. She doesn’t claim to know it all. She doesn’t claim to be fluent in Ucwalmícwts, although she’s on the cusp, and she’s comfortable making mistakes and being wrong.
“Maybe that will give someone the confidence to get over themselves, too,” Wallace said. “Because it’s all about building a community of people who we can speak to. [Ucwalmícwts] is not going to be useful to me if I’m speaking by myself.”
Undercurrents of doubt still seep in. She catches herself thinking about her mixed-race heritage and wondering what business she has teaching Ucwalmícwts. She’s aware these conversations might be happening when she’s not around.
“But I’m claiming it,” she said. “I’m Ucwalmícwts. I’m Lil’Wat.”
She envisions a day where she can go to the grocery store and asking, “how much is this?” in her language.
“I want people in the world, wherever space I am, to hear Ucwalmícwts and see my identity as Ucwalmícwts,” Wallace said. “Talking on the phone, making a reservation for a vacation, asserting that we’re still here. We’re very much alive. We’re not extinct.”
It’s likely that Lah would have been elated to see such a world and to know her granddaughter played a part in keeping her ancestral language alive.