Saltwater Hank's Siip’nsk: Preserving Tradition and Rocking Out To Preserve The Sm’algya̱x Language

When we were young and naïve, we used to think rock and roll could save the world. The jury’s still out on that one, but in the meantime, there’s every reason to believe it can win battles that are smaller but no less urgent.

That’s become the musical mission of Saltwater Hank, the Indigenous roots artist whose new album, Siip’nsk, continues his quest to preserve the Sm’algya̱x language in song. The mother tongue of the Ts’msyen people of Hank’s native La̱x Kxeen a.k.a Prince Rupert, BC. Now here comes Siip’nsk. With every syllable sung in Sm’algya̱x and the music seamlessly interweaving traditional Ts’msyen words and melodies with the instrumental moves of classic rock and blues, the album will find its home by slipping it into the ears of listeners far and wide.

“I care a lot about our language, with there being around 60 fluent speakers remaining, and none of those speakers are under the age of 70,” Hank says. “It’s such a tremendous part of who we are as Ts’msyen people, how we see the world, how we interact with our environment. So that has become a part of me. Through reclaiming the language, I reclaim identity, and by having it be a huge part of my creative process, I get to express that.”

Single “Xgap’isgu” doesn’t rely just on the Sm’algya̱x language, but on one of its specific idiomatic expressions to get the point across. Hank’s rockin’ trio sink their teeth into an old-school rave-up that makes the most of a somewhat eyebrow-raising bit of inherited phraseology.

“‘Xgap’isgu’ means ‘I eat the berries right off the bush,’” Hank explains. “I get a lot of enjoyment from using words that take an entire sentence in English to describe what they mean.”

To wit:
G̱a̱ni wila xga̱p’isgu
(I’m continuously eating berries from off the bush)
Txa̱l ga̱bu na iimg̱u
(I’m almost eating my whiskers)
Dzida hoyag̱ida sg̱a̱n smmaay ‘nüün
(If you were like a blueberry bush)
Ksa duulayu dm hoyu ada wayi hagwil dm güültu
(My tongue is all I’d use, and well, I’m going to pick slowly)

Well, alrighty then! Talk about knowing your way around a native tongue.

Saltwater was born in La̱x Kxeen, with bloodlines stemming from Txałgiiw, Maxłaxaała & Gitwangak. From early on, he was drawn to the stories and traditions of Ts’msyen life. With the legacy of his great-great-grandmother—a revered songwriter of traditional songs—to guide him, he set out on his own journey to preserve the purity of the Ts’msyen musical heritage.

The more recent stages of that odyssey have seen him studying the language in earnest, getting ever more comfortable with its rich vocabulary and evocative idioms. His last album, 2023’s G̱al’üünx Wil Lu Holtga Liimi, was also sung entirely in Sm’algya̱x, but it was a more country-oriented affair that was often tagged as “Americana” as it racked up strong notices from the likes of The Guardian, No Depression and (natch) Americana Highways. Hank has become even more fluent in the language since then, helping solidify the “precontact” authenticity of his presentation; at the same time, his music has gotten even more accessible. “Xgap’isgu” shakes the walls in a punked-out fashion that’s bound to captivate listeners who don’t speak a word, which, as we’ve established, means just about everybody. The amped-up garage energy of the track is taken to the next level by the fluidity of some skittering, frenetic lead guitar.

Like the rest of the album, the song was recorded live “off the floor” of the studio, with all of the instrumentation and even the vocals going down in real time. That strategy has made for a vibrant document of the airtight interplay between guitarist-vocalist Hank, drummer Danny Bell (a Minnesota-born resident of the Lheidli T’enneh territory who’s played with him since 2012) and bassist Melissa Walker of Prince George, making her swan-song appearance as a member of the trio.

A fearlessly straightforward approach lends itself to the stage, which is where the Saltwater Hank trio are headed this summer to show off their new material in earnest—and to provide some fresh storytelling opportunities for their frontman, who’s quite the raconteur no matter what language he’s speaking in.

One thing’s for sure: You’ll never have a better time helping somebody keep his lineage alive. “I feel like I have a responsibility to pass it on,” Hank says. “That’s what all the elders say, that’s how it’s been since time immemorial. I feel lucky to be able to be a vessel for song. I feel like it’s not really me that’s behind all the songs that have come out of me; there’s something bigger that I am fortunate to be a part of.”

2024 Tour Dates:
July 12-14 – Arts on The Fly Festival, Horsefly, BC
July 17 – Omineca, Prince George, BC
July 18 – Performances in the Park, Williams Lake, BC
July 19-21 – Bella Coola Music Festival, Bella Coola, BC
July 26-28 – Kispiox Valley Music Festival, Hazelton, BC
July 31 – Souris Hall, Souris, PEI
Aug. 2-4 – Sappy Fest, Sackville, NB
Aug. 9 – The Union Café, Berwick, NS
Aug. 10 – The Buffalo Club, Dartmouth, NS
Aug. 11 – Gus’ Pub, Halifax, NS
Aug. 16-18 – Robson Valley Music Festival, Dunster, BC
Aug. 30 - Quadrapalooza, Quadra Island, BC
Sept. 1 - Sunshine Fest, Powell River, BC