In a longtime day care facility in north Spokane on a recent day, it is after lunch. The preschoolers are getting out their mats, getting ready to rest. The toddlers are heading outside to enjoy some time in the yard. The elementary students are at their tables, doing their math minute.
One thing is constant in all these spaces: the lilting, lyrical sounds of the Salish language.
The Salish School of Spokane is an immersion program for preschool and elementary children that aims to preserve the Colville-Okanagan dialect of the Interior Salish language – one of four dialects spoken by area tribes. (The others are Coeur d’Alene, Spokane-Kalispel and Wenatchee-Columbian.)
This weekend, the school is hosting its annual fundraiser, Coyote Speaks, featuring award-winning and best-selling author Sherman Alexie.
Alexie, a Spokane Indian who was raised on the Spokane Reservation, calls himself a “total tourist” when it comes to the Salish language, despite the fact that his mother, Lillian Alexie, and her siblings are among the few remaining fluent speakers of the Spokane dialect.
“I know the dirty words, I can count to 10, and I can pick up words enough to have an idea if my mom was talking about me on the phone when I was a kid,” Alexie said by telephone this week. “It’s one of the reasons I’m so vitally interested in the school and what they’re doing.”
That his generation didn’t learn their native languages is a legacy of the Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation, he said.
“Now for the generation after me and successive generations, I’m hoping this school and other efforts can save the language,” he said.
His plan for Saturday’s benefit is a “full-on storytelling performance,” he said, one that will mix poetry and comedy.
“We were so excited to get Sherman,” LaRae Wiley, the school’s executive director. “To have his support and to have him come support us, we felt so validated. Our languages are so endangered.”
As an immersion school, the students speak and hear Salish all throughout the school day. There are 23 students in preschool through second grade, and the program is open to anyone. The school is required to meet all state standards – they just make a point of teaching everything in Salish.
But it’s not like the school can order textbooks and educational materials published in Salish, Wiley said. They simply don’t exist. Instead, the school has purchased a curriculum – one that complies with the new Common Core standards – and are undergoing the painstaking process of translating those works into the ancient language.
Proceeds from Coyote Speaks, now in its second year, will help support those translation efforts, as well as the school’s general operation.
“We only have 125 speakers of … the Colville-Okanagan dialect, and most of those are up in Canada. The other tribes are just a handful of speakers,” Wiley said. “And everyone is working very hard to bring back the language. We’re just pressed for time. We’re trying very hard very hard to try to get kids and families speaking it again.”