Intergenerational healing through language and land. Words :: Danielle Baker.
“I am a full-time student, have three jobs, and started a nonprofit,” says Myia Antone after apologizing for being ‘a little tired’ during our chat. The 24-year-old Squamish Nation member is the founder of Indigenous Women Outdoors, has a degree in Environment and Sustainability from UBC, and is one of fewer than 40 Skwx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish Nation language) speakers in the world. Much of the public recognition she receives, including being the youngest recipient of the Tim Jones Community Achievement Award, is for her dedication to making recreational sport accessible to Indigenous women—but revitalizing the Skwx̱wú7mesh language is her primary focus. “It is such a big piece of who I am and who I’m going to be in this world,” she says.
Named for her maternal grandmother, Myia grew up strongly connected to her mother’s Ukrainian heritage and family. Although her father is Skwx̱wú7mesh, she didn’t always identify as Indigenous. “I knew I was Skwx̱wú7mesh, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” she says.
After graduating high school, Myia began contemplating her future, realizing she’d first need to figure out where she came from. Reaching out to her extended family in Squamish for answers was a slow and delicate process. “All Indigenous Peoples have family members who went to residential school, and mine is no different,” she explains. “It caused so much trauma in our family that I had to remind myself that being Indigenous doesn’t make us weak.” As Myia learned more, she discovered a tradition of enduring strength at the heart of her culture. “It’s only in the last five years that I’ve proudly spoken about being Indigenous.”
Myia has been fortunate to discover that there are many knowledge keepers within her Indigenous family. “My uncle taught me how to weave a hat,” she says. “There are so many teachings that come from that.” Another uncle is happy to speak the Skwx̱wú7mesh sníchim with her. “He says life is being breathed back into a language that was almost completely gone, taken away from us.”
Passionate about land-based learning and wanting to delve deeper into Indigenous culture, Myia spent time in the Northwest Territories and Haida Gwaii. “I learned how to hunt, fish, and harvest medicines with the elders there,” she says, adding that connecting with the environment has been such a powerful force in her own life that she knew it would be for other Indigenous women as well. “I know how healing it is to be in the forest and on the land.”
With a grant from Mountain Equipment Co-op, she started a hiking group for Skwx̱wú7mesh women. The program was so popular that Myia recognized a need to continue and expand it to include all Indigenous women. Turning the venture into a nonprofit—Indigenous Women Outdoors—allowed her to apply for additional grants and grow the community. Currently, the program operates as a one-woman show, with Myia doing everything from arranging events to answering emails and posting on social media. “I’m a pretty determined person,” she acknowledges.
That determination has expanded Indigenous Women Outdoors to include certifications in mountain bike instruction, wilderness first aid, and avalanche education, as well as introductions to rock climbing. Myia’s long-term vision is to have more Indigenous women professionally certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, one of most respected guiding organizations in the world. “Part of the reason I created this whole thing was that I wanted to be skiing and biking with more Indigenous folks,” she says, adding that she hopes to include lessons on botany, animal track identification, and water-based learning.
In winter 2020, six Indigenous women participated in a five-month mentorship on backcountry ski and snowboard safety. Adventure sports store evo Whistler stepped up with free rentals, and North Vancouver-based Arc’teryx connected the group with local instructors and outdoor leaders. “They set us up with someone for snow science and backcountry cooking,” Myia says. “Everyone was just so happy to volunteer and help out. We even got all the participants avalanche certified.”
During the mentorship, Myia learned different Skwx̱wú7mesh words for snow to share with the students. This inspired one of the participants, who is Métis from Alberta, to learn what snow was in her Indigenous language. “She spoke to her mom and grandma and found 20 different words to teach us.”
Myia’s mission is to create an accessible and encouraging environment for others to learn language. “I want people to ask these questions and not feel embarrassed about not knowing the answers. The more people who can speak and protect our languages, the stronger we will be.”
Myia has picked up Skwx̱wú7mesh sníchim quickly and plans to continue teaching it after completing her full-time studies in the Squamish Language program at Simon Fraser University. “My life revolves around the Skwx̱wú7mesh language,” she says. “When spoken, it mimics the way the wind travels on our territory and reminds me of how connected our language is to the land. I’d love to bridge this work and my outdoor work.”
Actually, a commonality already exists through all of Myia’s passions. Her work with the environment, language, and her nonprofit, helps to create intergenerational healing. “I am healing my family and myself. I am healing my siblings and my future kids. Smén̓hem is our word for descendants or those who come after us. Our children are our future; everything that I do is for those who have not been born yet.”