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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘It makes us stronger’: Spokane gathering celebrates efforts to sustain indigenous languages

UPDATED: Fri., July 26, 2019

Fourth- through sixth-grade students from the Salish School of Spokane sing at the 2019 Rally for Salish in the Clock Tower Meadow of Riverfront Park on Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Fourth- through sixth-grade students from the Salish School of Spokane sing at the 2019 Rally for Salish in the Clock Tower Meadow of Riverfront Park on Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

LaRae Wiley says the key to successfully learning Salish is family.

And proof of that maxim could be found Friday afternoon in Spokane’s Riverfront Park, where Wiley found shelter from the blazingly hot sun under a tent and watched as her granddaughters, her children and her children’s spouses took to an impromtu stage and sang in the endangered native language of the Colville tribe.

Wiley’s family weren’t the only ones singing during a gathering of a few hundred community members and students to celebrate the Salish language and raise awareness of how many native languages in the Pacific Northwest are – or soon could be – extinct.

Wiley is the founder of the Salish School of Spokane, and her students were singing too.

When students enroll in the school, Wiley said parents or other family members are required to learn the language themselves. That way, she said, every child will have someone at home to practice with. Wiley herself is one of three generations who teaches at or attends the school.

“It shows the child learning the language that it has value, that it’s important,” she said.

While Wiley recently took a break from leadership at the school to recover from a head injury, she has returned in a half-time capacity.

The school’s interim executive director, Kim Richards, said the United Nations declared 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to Richards, the Friday rally aimed to recognize all Native languages, with an emphasis on those of the Pacific Northwest. She said Salish is the Spokane area’s original language and that it belongs to everyone.

“We’re not going to save our languages by ourselves,” Richards said. “We need your help.”

The Salish School of Spokane teaches Colville-Okanagan Salish, the language Wiley’s grandmother and great-grandmother grew up speaking. But Spokane is also home to three other Salish dialects: Wenatchee-Columbian Salish, Spokane Kalispel Salish and Coeur d’Alene Salish. Richards said there are far more languages across the state, but many of them are now extinct or “sleeping,” meaning there are no native speakers remaining but that the language has been preserved through recordings.

A range of Native languages was represented at the rally. Several members of the Umatilla tribe, whose reservation is near Pendleton, Oregon, encouraged young people in attendance to continue speaking their language and pass their traditions on. Pat Moses, a member of the Spokane Tribe, also spoke.

Moses said he learned Salish from his elders and that seeing children speak and sing the language reminded him of Native speakers who are now gone. He said now that families can pray in their own language, it makes the community stronger.

“When we pray in our language, it makes our prayers stronger and it makes us stronger,” he said.

When the Salish School of Spokane was founded a decade ago, there were six students. Now there are 58, ages 3 to 17, and 33 staff members. The school also teaches adults Salish at night and posts educational materials online, so anyone can download the basics of Salish or listen to a Salish word of the day through their Facebook page.

At the rally, every age group at the school performed a few songs, played the drums and spoke to the crowd in Salish. And many of the singers wore a red handprint on their faces – a symbol that aims to bring attention to the large numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Richards said many families hoping to learn Salish are low-income and that the school provides child care, transportation and a meal to remove as many barriers as possible.

“It’s really a community gathering,” she said.

While Wiley said the school’s goal is to create families who speak the language, , not all of the students at the school are Native American.

“It takes everybody to bring our language back, because it took everybody for our language to go away,” Wiley said.

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