At first, Leo Tanner found the long strings of consonants in the Coeur d’Alene language intimidating, and he had difficulty producing sounds from the back of his throat.
The North Idaho College student had studied Spanish and Hindu, but Coeur d’Alene threw him for a loop. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ll never be able to learn that,’ ” Tanner recalled.
But with a semester of study behind him, Tanner is gaining confidence in speaking the ancestral language of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Earlier this week, he tossed back answers to instructor Raymond Brinkman during the twice-weekly class. And words like “snqwqw’lups,” which means blue jeans, no longer sound or look strange.
“It’s artistic when you look at it,” said the 24-year-old anthropology major. “It reminds me of Picasso.”
College-level instruction in the Coeur d’Alene language began during the 1990s so tribal members could earn credits for studying their native tongue. But others are also welcome in the NIC class, said Brinkman, the tribe’s linguist.
Over the years, he’s introduced more than 100 college students to Coeur d’Alene.
“Language is one of the human phenomena where the more you give away, the more there is,” Brinkman said. “Having more people speaking Coeur d’Alene can only help the tribe’s language efforts.”
Coeur d’Alene is one of 23 Salish languages spoken by native peoples from Montana to the Pacific coast, and in parts of British Columbia. It’s distinct from a related language spoken by the Spokane, Kalispel and Bitterroot-Salish Tribe of Montana.
Coeur d’Alene is characterized by glottal stops – the explosive sound found in “uh-oh” – and pharyngeals, consonants that originate in the back of the throat. (Think of the “h” sound in Bach, or the guttural “r” of a French speaker, Brinkman said.)
Pharyngeals are often challenging for English speakers, who are accustomed to speaking from the front of the mouth. But Kathy Lewis finds the effort to master the difficult pronunciations rewarding.
“We may not get all the words just right, but we’re helping with this bigger goal of keeping the language alive,” said Lewis, who is the head of NIC’s American Indian studies program and also a student in the class.
Part of Lewis’ heritage comes from Central California tribes, where the languages have become extinct. During a century of assimilation efforts, Native Americans were discouraged from speaking their languages in government-run boarding schools.
“Language is important to identity – so important that it wasn’t allowed to be spoken,” she said. In addition, “language is vital to understanding how people see the world.”
Lewis said she’s gained a deeper appreciation for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s culture by learning that the word for wife translates as “my medicine,” and the word for father means “gentle man.”
The fact that Coeur d’Alene remains a spoken language reflects decades of work by tribal elders, anthropologists, linguists and others.
Scholarly efforts to preserve the Coeur d’Alene language began in 1928, when Gladys Reichard, an anthropology professor from New York’s Columbia University, spent a summer on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
With the help of the Nicodemus family – Dorothy, an elder; her daughter, Julia; and her grandson, 17-year-old Lawrence – Reichard began documenting the language. Dorothy told stories in Coeur d’Alene; her daughter and grandson translated them into English for Reichard.
Lawrence Nicodemus’ grasp of language analysis so impressed Reichard that she later brought him to New York City, where the two spent a year developing a Coeur d’Alene grammar, dictionary and texts.
But it was in the 1970s that efforts to revive the Coeur d’Alene language really took off. Aware that the number of fluent Coeur d’Alene speakers was dwindling, Lawrence Nicodemus – by then a retired judge and former tribal council member – developed additional instructional materials.
With his skills, he could have been a language scholar, Brinkman said. Instead, Nicodemus devoted the years until his death at 94 to reconnecting tribal members to their language.
Other tribal elders shared Nicodemus’ passion, said Kim Matheson, manager of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s language program. Together, they taught classes and worked with the language department to record more than 2,000 hours of audio and video. A new generation of speakers began to emerge.
Today, the Coeur d’Alene language is taught in tribal schools and through classes on the reservation. The tribe’s radio station includes broadcasts in Coeur d’Alene. And all tribal employees, native or not, are encouraged to gain some proficiency in Coeur d’Alene.
Only two tribal members – both in their 90s – remain who grew up speaking Coeur d’Alene as their primary language. But in many ways, the outlook for the language’s survival is better than it was 40 years ago, Brinkman said.
“It’s actually more widely used now,” he said. “People of all ages are speaking it. We don’t have that large number of elder speakers, but we have an army of people who could do positive things to keep it going.”
Matheson, the language program manager, thinks Nicodemus would approve.
“He would be excited about how things have progressed,” Matheson said.
Keven Mack, 19, is part of the NIC class. He hopes to someday work as an archeologist for an Indian tribe. In the meantime, he’s been sharing some of the Coeur d’Alene language with friends by adopting a Coeur d’Alene greeting.
“Ah, qh’est,” he tells them.
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