The leading authority on the Coeur d’Alene tribal language and one of just five native speakers remaining, Lawrence Nicodemus died Saturday morning at his home on the Coeur d’Alene reservation after a long illness. He was 94.
One of the last full-blooded Coeur d’Alenes, Nicodemus dedicated the last half of his life to preserving the endangered language. Besides developing a writing system for the traditionally unwritten language, he collaborated with an anthropology professor to create a grammar guide and dictionary for the Coeur d’Alene language. In 1990, he helped create a tribal language program and develop a curriculum for a class on the Coeur d’Alene language at Lakeside High School in Plummer, Idaho, and for a college course as well, said Raymond Brinkman, director of the tribe’s language program.
Even through the last months of his life, he logged hours at the tribe’s language center as a consultant.
“It’s rare to have Indians, or anyone, this knowledgeable of their own language,” Brinkman said. “He was brilliant in his ability to talk about it.”
As a 9-year-old speaking no English, Nicodemus started school at the Sacred Heart Mission in DeSmet, Idaho. He graduated from Gonzaga High School in 1930.
But it was as a 17-year-old that he realized a talent was also his passion.
In 1928, Columbia University anthropology professor Gladys Reichard traveled to the Coeur d’Alene reservation to document one of the Salish languages. She happened to meet Nicodemus’ grandmother, and as she spent hours sharing old stories with Reichard, Nicodemus was able to help his mother translate, Brinkman said.
Reichard was so impressed with his language skill that she brought him to New York in 1935 to help create a guide to the Coeur d’Alene language’s grammar and rules.
“He stood across two cultures,” said the Rev. Thomas Connolly of the Sacred Heart Mission.
“He grew up in the old Indian way and was sophisticated enough to be a great bridge between two worlds, a great interpreter of one to the other.”
During Word War II, Nicodemus edited and published a newsletter that was sent to all the tribal members serving in the armed forces.
After the war, he served as a tribal judge, completed a law degree by correspondence through Chicago’s LaSalle College and served on the Coeur d’Alene tribal council.
At age 69, he earned a music degree from Eastern Washington University.
Nicodemus was known throughout the reservation as a carrier of the native language, a teacher and a dignitary, said relative Norma Jean Louie.
“He said there are so few that are fluent speakers, and that’s what’s important to us as Indian people,” Louie said.
“Because it is so much different than the English language.”
Besides his passion for language, Nicodemus was also a devout Catholic who “thought his work on language was God’s work,” Brinkman said.
He regularly played the organ at masses and was known for his singing of the Lord’s Prayer.
Nicodemus was fiercely independent, a bit stubborn and quick to find humor in almost any situation, Brinkman added.
“He delighted in our mispronunciations of the language,” he said.
“He was constantly on our heels with puns and word play.”
Today, there are still few considered proficient in the Coeur d’Alene language, Brinkman said, but there are dozens of students because of Nicodemus.
“He left us a lifetime of work,” he said.
Nicodemus never married. He is survived by his first cousin, Anne Antelope Samuels, 104.
A wake will be held today at 7 p.m. at the Worley Longhouse in Worley, Idaho.
It will be a rosary service.
Nicodemus’ funeral will be Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the Sacred Heart Mission in DeSmet, Idaho.
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