Finding kinship between two tongues: An interview with Francis Baptiste

Finding kinship between two tongues: An interview with Francis Baptiste

By: Cierra Bettens | Photo by: Gaetan Nerincx; Art by: Laura Stanley

“Our nsyilxcən language is our knowledge of the land, water and the tmixʷ. The sounds and pronunciations within our nsyilxcən language came from the tmixʷ and contain specific knowledge values and meaning to them.

Article 2, Syilx Okanagan Language Declaration

Francis Baptiste knows there’s a lot in a language. His latest album, Family (Snəqsilxʷ), is a culmination of songs in both English and nsyilxcən [nah-silx-sin], the language of the Syilx people. Today, fewer than 150 fluent speakers of nsyilxcən, Baptiste’s grandmother’s mother tongue, remain. 

The 30-something musician and music journalist currently resides in Vancouver but is originally from the Osoyoos Indian Band in the Okanagan. Raising his son Finn in the urban confines of Vancouver, a four hour drive away from Baptiste’s homelands, has come with its own set of challenges. 

After the death of his grandmother, Baptiste took it upon himself to learn the language. Not long after, he began incorporating nsyilxcən words into melodies, and eventually, into an album. Throughout Family (Snəqsilxʷ), listeners become privy to intimate parts of Baptiste’s life. At this point, he has few reservations about keeping his guard up or hiding truths about himself. Gone is any sense of pretension. 

Family (Snəqsilxʷ) is not merely an album but an act of preservation. It grapples with themes of addiction, separation, and identity. Baptiste rethinks, then reimagines, what it means to be Indigenous. I called him to talk about language, isolation, and the meaning of home. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Cierra Bettens: Let’s start with a very general question. The theme of this issue of New Feeling is Kinship. What does kinship mean to you?

Francis Baptiste: I guess when I hear that word, I think of family. Not just your literal biological family, but the family you create around you. I found since making this album that I’ve been thinking a lot about that in general. My son and I live in Vancouver, but all of my family is from the Okanagan. We all live on the Osoyoos Indian Band. 

It’s been a struggle trying to raise a son on your own and not having that kind of support system. I grew up with a lot of brothers and sisters and basically had built-in biological babysitters. Finn doesn’t have any siblings. He doesn’t have the constant presence of his cousins or the larger family in general. I mean, the Osoyoos Indian Band is only 500 people. It basically consists of three or four large families, including my own.

I’m used to being in a place where everyone is your family. Everyone just calls each other ‘cousins’ or ‘cuz’ because it’d be too exhausting to actually pay attention to who actually is your cousin. You kind of assume you’re related somehow. That kind of environment is what I think of when I think of [what it was like] when I was a child. 

Raising Finn out here where he doesn’t have anything like that feels a lot more solitary and isolated. There’s also the cultural aspect to that too because it feels like raising [Finn] in Vancouver is essentially raising him in this settler lifestyle. He doesn’t really understand what the rez is. He doesn’t have the context of what it means to be Indigenous, as dramatic as it sounds. There’s nothing Native about the way we live out here. I guess that kind of raises other questions of identity struggle in general. What does it mean to be an Indigenous man in this day and age in this country? When you take the rez aspect out of it, that becomes even more confusing. 

CB: Your latest album, Family (Snəqsilxʷ), blends songs written in both English and nsyilxcən. How does each respective language impact your songwriting process?

FB: Writing in English is easier. I’m not a fluent nsyilxcən speaker. I didn’t start learning the language until I started writing this album. This album has been the start of my journey of trying to reclaim the language for myself. 

It’s a lot more planning. I don’t have to think about the language when I write a song in English because I’ve been speaking English my whole life. There are just a lot of differences in the practicality of it. The syllables are different. There are a lot more consonant sounds in nsyilxcən. There are a lot of strange letters and sounds that don’t really exist in English. There are certain letters that kind of sound like a lisp, or throat sounds—these sounds that kind of aren’t singable. It made me realize how vowel-heavy English is and how every vowel sound is almost made to be a held note. It’s easy to turn those sounds into musical notes, you know? But it seems trickier in nsyilxcən. 

So for the songs that I did write in nsyilxcən, the melodies there are simpler. I have to keep things simple to make it work, but it’s also an ongoing learning process for me musically. Right now I’m writing the next song, and it feels like I’m slowly getting a little better at it, which is good. 

CB: I’m curious to know who you collaborated with on your album. What was the translation process like? 

FB: Originally, I had the idea that I would just write songs in English and send them to some of the better speakers back home. So, I would just write a song in English, send it to them, and they’d send me back a translation. I found out very early that that process just doesn’t work. You have a rough idea of how you think the melody is going to go, but the change in syllables is so extreme sometimes. It made it harder to try to shoehorn the language into a song. 

So instead of doing that, I just kind of spent more time looking at what vocabulary I was learning already. As I was learning, I would highlight certain words or certain phrases that could fit into a song. I’d come back to it later at my guitar and see if I could sing a word and play a few chords, see if I could make it sound good. 

CB: What kind of resources are available for Indigenous musicians looking to preserve endangered languages? 

FB: It’s very limited, but there are some organizations that are kind of working to get these languages recorded and preserved through writing. There are websites like firstvoices.com, which have been a really good resource for me. They do a whole bunch of other Indigenous languages as well. So if another Indigenous person was interested in trying to learn their language, they could go on there and see what they have. It’s usually PDFs you can download, and sound files, which I find super helpful. 

From my band, there’s an organization called the Syilx Language House. They have a website; it has a few resources there. When COVID came along the Sylix Language House couldn’t operate in a physical classroom anymore, so they started Zoom sessions, which is also super handy for me here in Vancouver, so far from home. It’s a chance for me to connect to other people in my community trying to learn the language and also just see family members I haven’t seen in a long time. 

CB: Family (Snəqsilxʷ) deals with a lot of personal themes like addiction, identity, and going through a divorce. How do you decide what to disclose to your listeners and what to keep private? 

FB: A friend told me a couple of years ago, “You don’t use a lot of metaphors—you’re kinda just literally saying things.” Since he brought that up, I’m always thinking, “My gosh, I should use more metaphors.” But it all comes out like a diary or journal—this is literally what was getting me down. 

It can become very personal or exposing. I’ve found the same thing in live performances, especially in the last two years. I’ve kind of made a conscious choice to be more open and be more vulnerable. But lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about if it could potentially be damaging in certain situations. There are a lot of songs about addiction. There’s a lot of talking or storytelling between songs. It’s hard to sometimes second-guess the stories I tell. 

I’m trying, I think, to just let it all out or live more with [my] guard down, that kind of thing. For one thing, it’s less pretentious, and it just simplifies everything. I’m 37 now—I don’t want to have to pretend to be better than I am anymore in my life. It’s just exhausting to put on these masks and put on a show. 

CB: How has the experience of creating the album affected you? 

FB: It’s felt like a good experience so far. It’s caused me to think more about what it means to be Indigenous and rethink what family is all about. It’s very cathartic. A lot of people are very supportive of it in general, especially when I started the Native language aspects. They seem to be very interested in it. I can’t wait to start working on the next one. 

Francis Baptiste’s Family (Snəqsilxʷ) is now available on Apple Music and all other major streaming platforms.