Once a week, in a lunchroom at the old tribal girls’ school, Coeur d’Alene Indian elders comb their memories for echoes of their ancient language.
That language is in danger of dying, tribal leaders say. A tribal survey last year located only 10 people who could still speak the language fluently. All were elderly.
“We are really in a crisis situation,” said Dianne Allen, director of the tribal Department of Education. “People learn it in schools, but nobody’s using it on a day-to-day basis.”
The Tribal Council agrees. Seven months ago, it passed a resolution requiring all tribal employees to learn - and begin using - the Coeur d’Alene language.
“Our Coeur d’Alene language is in danger of being permanently lost within a few short years without drastic, intense programming to save it,” the resolution reads.
“Any language needs a community of speakers to survive. I don’t think that community has existed here for a long time,” said Raymond Brinkman, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He attends the weekly meetings with the elders, which are being used to develop short language classes to be taught during tribal employees’ workdays.
Allen and tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar said they’ve had no complaints about mandatory classes.
“From what I can ascertain, everyone’s excited about it, including our non-Indian employees,” said Stensgar. “The language is the spirit and heart of our people. If I truly want to learn my culture, I need to learn it (the language).”
The decline of the Coeur d’Alene language, tribal officials say, was due to the widespread policy of discouraging native languages in government-run boarding schools for Indian children. Coeur d’Alene tribal schools were run by the Catholic Church, but the policy was the same.
“Our problem is not unique. It’s throughout Indian country, on reservations that had boarding schools set up,” said Allen. “That boarding school era really robbed us of our culture and our language. My generation didn’t get to speak it or even hear it.”
Allen, who is half Coeur d’Alene and half Puyallup Indian, went to high school near Tacoma. Her white classmates assumed she could speak an Indian language.
“Rather than admit I couldn’t speak my native language, I made things up,” Allen said. “From that point on, I’ve always wanted to learn my language.”
The tribe’s director of cultural resources, Dixie Saxon, views the boarding school era as a necessary evil given the times.
“At the time, it was in the best interests of those kids,” she said. “You had to learn English to go to school. We were in a survival mode.”
Now, she said, the tribe must preserve its language, one of the links that bind members together as a people.
The employee classes are not the only recent effort to preserve the language. A year ago, tribal school teacher John Anderson started a program using computers to teach Coeur d’Alene phrases to schoolchildren. The voice on the computer is that of 85-year-old tribal member Lawrence Nicodemus, who published a dictionary of the language in 1978.
“The new generation, they’re realizing that there’s something in the language: their culture,” said Nicodemus, who is now helping develop the employee classes. “This is a beginning.”
This fall, the Plummer/Worley Joint School District also plans to offer classes in the language at the district’s Lakeside High School in Plummer. The class will be taught by computer.
“It would be nicer to have someone with a background in the language, but there’s getting to be so few of them left,” said school superintendent Bob Singleton.
Coeur d’Alene is closely linked to the Spokane, Flathead and Kalispell tribal languages. All are “Salish languages,” tied to coastal tribes. The Spokane language is more commonly heard on the Coeur d’Alene reservation, tribal officials say, because the government moved many Spokanes there.
For Allen, working on the employee classes puts her closer to her vision. Someday, she hopes, the tribe’s children will again learn the language at home, and grow up bilingual.
“For all these years, we’ve been robbed of that very important aspect of what we are,” she said. “We want it back.”
MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “Some sample words.”