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Locally Writ: Emma Noyes’ ‘Baby Speaks Salish’ honors her family’s traditions

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 2, 2020

As a member of the Sinixt band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, local author and artist Emma Noyes is devoted to continuing her family’s storytelling traditions and promoting the teaching of the Salish language. Noyes’ book, “Baby Speaks Salish,” is set for release on Tuesday.

After studying Salish for several years, Noyes had grown committed to the idea of passing down the language to her children. So when her daughter was born in 2016, Noyes decided to sit down and put her language learning resources to the test.

“Baby Speaks Salish” was first conceived as a podcast, then printed as a zine for Spokane Zine Fest and now published as an educational picture book filled with Noyes’ characteristic black and white illustrations.

For Noyes, Salish is more than a language. It represents a conduit to understanding and connecting with her Native ancestors and fellow living speakers. Maintaining that connection is crucial to honoring the past and sharing traditions with future generations, Noyes explained.

There are many dialects of Salish, all of which are endangered.

“They haven’t become endangered because communities didn’t value those languages or because they fell out of fashion and were replaced by English,” Noyes said. “Our language is endangered because of forced assimilation.”

In “Baby Speaks Salish,” Noyes chose to focus on Colville-Okanagan, a southern interior dialect spoken by her community.

Growing up, Noyes picked up a few Salish words from her father and other elders in her community.

“It wasn’t really until adulthood that I felt this kind of missing piece of my identity as a Native person not being able to speak my language,” Noyes said.

During a trip to New Zealand a few years ago, Noyes had the opportunity to travel with a Maori language immersion school. In one week, Noyes found that she suddenly knew more words in Maori than her own Salish language. Working through the process of translation, it struck her how much of her ancestors’ history and culture must be embedded in their language – and how much she must be missing.

Back in the U.S., she found an immersion program and got to work. Today, the majority of her knowledge is due to her Salish-teaching husband, Jake LaMere, and classes at the Salish School of Spokane.

To aspiring Salish learners – and language learners of all sorts – Noyes recommends the following:

“Be really gentle with yourself. Truly view yourself as a baby learning a language. Have that level of compassion and that level of gentleness in the way that you approach your ability to learn.”

“Baby Speaks Salish” is available for preorder at Wishing Tree Books and online through scablandsbooks.org.

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