Elder Elmer Seniemten George
Spring 2016 Convocation
Songhees Elder Elmer Seniemten George is one of the few remaining fluent speakers of Lekwungen, a dialect of the Northern Straits Salish peoples. He stewards the survival not only of the language, but also the traditional teachings and the culture embedded in the words.
He is a residential school survivor. Born in Victoria on his family’s traditional lands, he was removed from his home as a child and sent to Christie Indian Residential School in Kakawis, Tofino. Seniemten ran away from the boarding school at age 16. He holds an elected role as Head Provincial Elder and a lifetime role as traveling missionary for the Indian Shaker Church, a faith community blending Indigenous and Christian traditions. He performs ceremonies including weddings, funerals and baptisms in British Columbia and Washington.
Throughout his life, Seniemten has been relied upon to help and support others in multiple capacities, always stepping forward to do the hard work, quietly and without fanfare. He worked as a boom man and in a shake mill in the logging industry and handled backhoe operation, carpentry, plumbing and electrical work among other roles as the Songhees Band’s maintenance man for 35 years. He built and designed the Songees Big House with former Songhees Chief John Albany and with others, rebuilt the Indian Shaker Church in Brentwood Bay. He rebuilds racing canoes with his son, among many activities that benefit the community.
In 2011, Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas invited Seniemten to put down his maintenance tools and take on a critical role as language instructor. He immediately taught himself the International Phonetic Alphabet, a tool he has since used to transcribe, translate and teach. Now his work ranges from teaching young children at Craigflower Elementary School to mentoring individuals to translation work for the Royal British Columbia Museum. He has spent countless hours documenting Lekwungen in print and through recordings to create a database of Lekwungen words and phrases, bringing Lekwungen understanding and translation to archival works, including those collected around Coast Salish lands by anthropologist Franz Boas in the 1800s. He is regularly called upon by Camosun College, the University of Victoria and Royal Roads University to advise and participate in support for Indigenous students, Indigenous education and language revitalization activities. He is also called upon to provide blessings and ceremonies for occasions of all kinds in the area.
Royal Roads University was honoured to have Seniemten conduct protocol activities before the official opening of the building called Sneq’wa e’lun (Blue Heron House) located on the shore of Esquimalt Lagoon. He is one of a small number of people with the traditional authority to do this. He is a member of the Royal Roads Elders’ Circle and his wisdom and advice continue to benefit the university in countless ways.