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Saving Salish: Regional tribes aim to increase fluency for future generations

CUSICK, Washington – Teacher Nalene Andrews sat in a circle with six children during a Sept. 27 class as she used hand signs and repeated sentences in her native language.

The first- and second-graders easily recited her Salish words and signs for, “I went to my house; I went to the river.” If a child asked a question in English, Andrews answered in Salish. Next, the group sang a Salish alphabet song.

A year ago, the Kalispel Tribe opened the Salish immersion school, Snyoyo’spu’úsm or Place of the Good-Hearted, adding third-grade instruction this year to an initial K-2 start last fall. The school is an extension of Cusick’s public elementary school, with core curriculum instruction in Salish from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., said JR Bluff, Kalispel language program director.

“They live the language, so they have PE, culture, recess, math, science and reading all in Salish,” he said.

Today, 21 children go each school day from morning instruction at Bess Herian Elementary to a nearby double-wide and shop building, both converted for K-3 instruction in Salish.

As a teacher in the program, 21-year-old Andrews became highly proficient in Salish through the tribe’s intensive language work.

The immersion school is one tool among widespread revitalization efforts to save an endangered Salish language at a time when the tribe has five Kalispel elders alive who are fluent Salish speakers. Close to a decade’s work has built a methodology of instruction and translated materials.

In recent years, its intensive language program has created about 25 apprentice speakers, all highly proficient in Salish use, Bluff said. A key for an immersion school is using teachers trained through the language curriculum to gain fluency.

“The kids are learning,” Bluff said. “They’re swimming in the language.”

The Kalispel program developed much of its language-learning curriculum by partnering with Chris Parkin, former high school Spanish teacher who co-founded Salish School of Spokane with his wife, LaRae Wiley.

The couple also created curriculum in other Salish languages, including Colville-Okanagan. Now in it’s eighth year, the Spokane facility offers preschool, K-6, and other instruction.

A similar approach is happening in Wellpinit, where a new Spokane Tribe Salish immersion school is in its second year, for 10 children ages 3 to 6. Some of its teachers did initial training in the Kalispel language program.

The Kalispels’ school is open to all Cusick-area students regardless of tribal heritage. It has four teachers, including a certified substitute teacher trained in Salish. Three part-time teachers help.

Because it’s a partnering education program, all students are enrolled in the Cusick district, ride on public buses and receive district services and meals at the Cusick school. The immersion school launched with a grant and doesn’t receive any state school funds. No tuition is required, Bluff said.

Bluff credits Parkin with bringing to the table a methodology to create a systematic language acquisition program for learning Salish, and it’s one that works.

“Chris has an understanding of language revitalization,” Bluff said. “He gave us a tool and said, ‘Do this tool, it works.’ We did it, and it works.

“Right now, what we feel we have is a six-level language revitalization plan,” Bluff added. “We can take you from, you don’t have one word in your vocabulary to basically highly proficient at the end of a year and a half, or two years.”

Bluff realized it’s more effective to develop apprentice speakers trained to teach other people and children. The Kalispels’ language work also has translated multiple materials into Salish, including children’s books telling traditional stories.

Johnny Arlee, 76, is a member of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and fluently speaks a Salish very similar to the Kalispels. He works in the Kalispels’ language program, including helping translate the Cusick School District’s science curriculum for the immersion school.

Arlee said he’s encouraged by new gains in people speaking Salish, including children.

“It fills my heart,” Arlee said. “I do see the language returning. It’s active. It’s not dying. That was my first language, Salish. We needed to be translators for our elders who didn’t know English. I thought it was coming to an end.

“My mind is changing. We have people who want to learn. We are clearing all the overgrowth and clearing the path and making it wider. Now with the kids learning, there is a freeway opening up.”

Family of Salish

Salish is a family of languages spoken by indigenous people regionally, with differences in dialects, words and sentence structure.

Parkin said four distinct regional languages are endangered. One is spoken by the Kalispel and Spokane tribes. The others are Coeur d’Alene, Colville-Okanagan, and one he calls Wenatchee-Columbian.

“Spokane and Kalispel, those are two dialects of a single language,” Parkin said. “A few words are different, but they can understand each other.”

Colville-Okanagan has about 10 fluent speakers in Washington and 90 in British Columbia. On the Colville reservation, a 92-year-old woman is the last fluent speaker of the Wenatchee-Columbian language and is teaching her grandnephew, Parkin said.

“The Coeur d’Alene tribal language program says they have one living first-language speaker, so two of those four languages are just hanging by a thread,” he said.

His interest in Salish began with his wife, LaRae Wiley, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She learned at her great uncle’s funeral that he was a fluent speaker, the last in her family, so she set out in her late 30s to learn Salish, Parkin said.

Wiley first worked with fluent speakers of Spokane Salish and later with an elder in her family’s Colville-Okanagan language.

“As LaRae tried to learn Salish, it was so incredibility difficult because there was no curriculum, no systematic means of teaching the language,” Parkin said. “She asked me to get involved.”

Two fluent speakers – Ann McCrea and Ortencia Ford – helped build early material. From 2003 to 2005, they recorded the speakers and created a textbook, “Spokane Salish 1,” and a computer software application.

By 2005, JR Bluff asked Parkin and Wiley about working with him to build a language learning program for the Kalispel Tribe, Parkin said. He was contracted to do a Kalispel first-level book. Working with Colville-Okanagan speaker Sarah Peterson led to a Colville-Okanagan book.

When Parkin and Wiley’s youngest child left for college in 2005, they lived two years with Peterson in Canada immersed in the language before returning to Spokane.

Slowly, they developed more Salish lessons relying on a base of digital audio recordings with fluent speakers. Students gain fluency regularly studying elders’ words, grammar and stories while completing structured lessons. They’re encouraged to interact regularly with fluent speakers.

“We have to listen to those recordings and do the activities,” said Parkin, who added that language immersion is another component. “We built everything in Colville first, then Kalispel. This took from 2005 to 2015, so for 10 years, we built that whole six-book curriculum.”

Parkin said they didn’t complete work for a full Spokane Salish six-level curriculum, but tribal teachers have done training, and they’re creating an immersion environment. “They still have some fluent speakers in their community.”

A Salish Wenatchee-Columbian curriculum has the first three levels, being studied by one young man.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to work with the Coeur d’Alene language; not yet,” Parkin said.

Helping families learn and use the language, giving it to younger generations, is key to creating fluency.

“Its primary use is to train new adult speakers and young parents, so they can become fluent and create the possibility they can raise their children in the language again,” Parkin said. “The only way you can save the language is if people raise their children in the language again.”

“Every teacher at Salish School of Spokane, which is more than 20, spends 90 minutes a day learning Salish from that curriculum to increase their fluency, so they can speak the language to the kids.”

It’s challenging to turn off English for full immersion, but he sees progress. “LaRae and I have four granddaughters, the oldest is 10, and we have never spoken English to them. We only speak Salish.”

Also, Salish School of Spokane is training 22 new fluent adult speakers, including 10 at an advanced fluent level. Three previously trained advanced Colville-Okanagan speakers returned to the Colville reservation to do language revitalization. A group of 11 teenagers and three adults just began studies.

With success, that would be part of the greatest gain regionally of fluent Salish speakers in modern history, Parkin said. “It’s unheard of that a highly endangered indigenous language could create this many new fluent speakers.”

Spokane Tribe

The Spokane Tribe’s Salish immersion school is called Back to the Heart, said Marsha Wynecoop, Spokane Tribe language program manager,

“We’re hoping to increase it to 20 students,” Wynecoop said. It runs four hours a day, Monday through Thursday, with plans to add Friday next year.

Previously, the tribe did immersion instruction for Head Start, and some limited time teaching Salish to K-12 students at the Wellpinit school, she said.

“It was not producing fluent speakers.”

Wynecoop said the tribe started with a template for curriculum but started recreating teaching materials to make it more indigenous to Spokane, both for language and culture. School trips take students to dig native vegetation, and teachers bring in counting and colors around the plants.

The immersion school is a path for next-generation fluency and a healing return to language and culture lost when ancestors were forced into boarding schools, Wynecoop said. The tribe plans eventually to offer an immersion school from preschool to college-level.

“We’re going to increase a grade year,” she said.

Coeur d’Alene Tribe

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has one remaining fluent elder speaker, Irene Lowley, who is in her 90s, said language program manager Audra Vincent.

“Like the other languages, we’re severely endangered,” Vincent said.

However, the tribe recorded fluent speakers consistently between 1995 and 2015, and some tapes date to the 1960s. It’s actively working to create new adult fluent speakers and organizing materials to make it more available and useful.

In building up an adult base of speakers, Vincent has worked with a group of five young adults for the past three years doing language work two hours a day, five days a week. One of her students recently started teaching the language at a Coeur d’Alene tribal school.

The Coeur d’Alene program isn’t ready to open an immersion school, Vincent said, but it has developed some curriculum. Fluent speaker Lawrence Nicodemus, now deceased, published Coeur d’Alene Salish materials and created a high school curriculum.

Vincent said she looked at Kalispel and Spokane curriculum in considering if the framework might work for Coeur d’Alene, but language differences would require significant translation, she said.

“We have some similar words, sounds and structure, but there’s actually a lot that’s different, even how sentences are formed. We’re kind of in a different stage.

“If we were to start an immersion school now, we wouldn’t have enough teachers to teach it. Right now, we’re focusing on getting enough people interested in the language, and there aren’t enough people who are.”

Kalispel Tribe

Kalispel Tribe language coordinator Jessie Isadore didn’t know any Salish 10 years ago. Now 30, she’s a highly proficient speaker. Before entering the Kalispels’ language program, Isadore said she heard Salish “maybe at a funeral.”

“I started with zero language,” Isadore said.

Today, she teaches science in the immersion school and instructs an intensive adult course. She credits the six-level language study materials along with other methods the tribe developed to learn Salish.

“I’m proof it works, not just from the books but also talking with JR and my elders,” Isadore said. “There are audio discs, computer programs, and we’re recording the elders with audio-visual.”

“I feel the most valuable piece is our immersion sessions with our elders,” she added. “We work Monday to Thursday one hour a day with them.”

Bluff, 52, handles the program’s Salish language assessments. His father, Stan Bluff, is a fluent elder working in the language program. Additionally, Cusick’s public high school has language instruction.

A long-term plan is to open an immersion school for all grades on tribal land, Bluff said.

“My ultimate goal is I quit teaching language because it’s here in the community and spoken in the community,” Bluff said. “It’s going to happen.”



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