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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Pacific NW

Inside the movement to revitalize tribal languages in WA schools

Jan. 29, 2023 Updated Sun., Jan. 29, 2023 at 9:39 p.m.

By Jeanie Lindsay Seattle Times

WAPATO, Wash. – From the moment they walk through Roger Jacob’s classroom door at Wapato High School, just south of Yakima, students are immersed in the language of the Yakama Nation.

The walls are covered with posters and whiteboards that feature phrases in Ichishkíin (pronounced itch-ish-KEEN) and fill nearly every inch of available space around the room. Stacks of books, including dozens of copies of a thick Ichishkíin dictionary, sit on shelves, designated for different students in each class period.

Jacob, who started out as a science teacher, used to think there was no way he’d ever have the patience to be an educator. But one thing that’s kept him at the job: the joy of teaching the language of his people, a job he’s been doing for just over a decade.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “And I hope that comes through to the kids.”

This class is part of the growing movement across Washington to revitalize tribal languages. With 29 sovereign nations within Washington’s borders, efforts across the state vary as tribal elders put nearly lost languages to paper, and schools, state officials and tribal leaders partner to offer classes in their communities.

Jacob, 56, grew up hearing the language spoken by his family – some of whom learned it before they learned English – and picked up what he calls “a pretty good vocabulary” along the way. Knowing there was a risk that the language could die out with the passing of Yakama elders, he started taking classes under the mentorship of Yakama elder and linguistic expert Virginia Beavert.

Beavert co-wrote the Ichishkíin dictionary that Jacob and his students use – no simple task, since Ichishkíin uses its own unique 47-letter alphabet, with combinations of symbols to indicate different stress points that can change a word’s entire meaning.

Ultimately, Beavert encouraged Jacob to become a teacher after he started helping her lead some of her classes. But Jacob didn’t plan on becoming an Ichishkíin teacher even as he started his career in the classroom – he went to school for natural resources management before becoming a science teacher. The number of science classes he taught gradually shrank each school year until Ichishkíin became his full-time job, along with a Native American academic and career exploration class he teaches at the end of the day.

“Originally I just wanted to be able to pass more on to my children,” he said, adding that his son recently started a job teaching science at the middle school.

On the west side of the Cascades, the Tulalip, Swinomish, and Suquamish tribes are among those offering more classes and school support for Lushootseed, the language spoken by Salish tribes around the Puget Sound region. In the Cape Flattery School District in Neah Bay, the Makah Tribe partners with schools to offer a dual language program. Wapato is just one district of several around the Yakama reservation that have started to offer Ichishkíin instruction.

Wapato High School, where 15% of students identify as Native American, was the first in the state where students earned the state’s Seal of Biliteracy in a tribal language. The seal, established in 2014, recognizes public high school graduates who have attained an intermediate-mid proficiency in English and one or more world languages, including American Sign Language and tribal languages.

Experts say being able to speak more than one language can greatly benefit a person’s brain – even helping slow the onset of dementia, as well as improving memory and the ability to multitask. For Native students, Jacob says learning their tribe’s language has the added benefit of boosting their confidence in themselves and the connection they have to their identity.

Students at Wapato express a range of knowledge and interest in the language, from kids just starting to learn Ichishkíin to others like Savannah Onessimo, who is on the verge of joining the ranks of Wapato alumni who have earned a Seal of Biliteracy – she’ll reach official bilingual status in Ichishkíin this summer.

Onessimo, a senior, travels around the region offering prayers in Ichishkíin at churches and gives speeches in the language at different events. She started learning it in middle school, after her mom encouraged her to try it out to keep the language alive and embrace her heritage. She shares a similar mindset about it.

“We need to keep our traditions and language close,” she said. “Without this, we wouldn’t have the connection to our culture.”

There still aren’t many schools offering formal tribal language classes. State data shows just 25 schools offered tribal language courses last school year, serving a little more than 6,000 students out of the roughly 1 million enrolled in Washington’s schools.

Part of the problem is the scarcity of people like Jacob – those who have the right combination of linguistic, cultural and teaching skills. But with growing interest and support from education and policy leaders, more tribes are hopeful about their ability to continue expanding.

Washington recognizes the authority of tribes to certify teachers in their language so they can teach the classes in state-run schools. Educators who want to become certified to teach a tribal language make those requests to tribal leaders, who develop their own requirements for what it takes to receive and renew that certification. Once an educator receives authorization from the tribe, they receive certification from the state.

Schools can also request consultations with their partner tribe if they want to offer tribal language courses, but the decision ultimately rests with tribal leadership, said Kayla Guyett, tribal language liaison at Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Each school district in Washington has a designated partner tribe, she said, and 39 districts are required by law to have consultations with their partner tribe every year.

Mostly, OSPI acts as a facilitator and resource provider, Guyett said. But as schools offer more of these classes, the state has also spent time working to ensure tribal language credits transfer to colleges and universities.

“We are working internally at OSPI to make sure that the process of colleges accepting our students’ credits is as airtight as possible,” Guyett said, adding that many Washington colleges and universities have been receptive, but there’s still work to do for schools outside the state.

While tribal languages aren’t as common as languages like Spanish or French, the state credits high school students for taking tribal language classes just like any other world language class. Guyett said some districts in the state have even partnered with local colleges to offer dual credit, and the name of the language students learn is on their high school transcripts.

It’s taken years of work to get to this point. Many people, including Jerry Meninick, the Yakama Nation’s deputy director for cultural services, credit the work of retired Washington lawmaker John McCoy as a turning point. McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes who served for 17 years in the state House and Senate – one of Washington’s longest-serving Native lawmakers – championed legislation to create the structure for educators to become certified to teach tribal languages, and for tribes to have their autonomy as sovereign nations further recognized in the K-12 school curriculum.

Before that agreement was reached, tribes had to negotiate language accreditation in schools with the state and it could be “contentious,” as Meninick describes it.

“On one side, of course, we’re dealing with Washington state regulations, and on our side we’re dealing with something that’s been here for eons,” he said.

Language revitalization isn’t exclusive to K-12 schools or classes, but for some it’s been the most accessible option. As more children reconnect with the language of their ancestors, many want to share what they’ve learned or practice at home. But not all family members speak the language. Meninick said the Yakama Nation and other tribes are working to offer classes or language learning opportunities to parents, too.

“We’re trying to catch all the places our people lived,” he said, noting that the tribe has expanded efforts into Ellensburg; Kittitas, Kittitas County; and Goldendale, Klickitat County, among other places.

Many tribal citizens and education experts agree that schools can help revitalize languages and strengthen the connections young tribal citizens have with their heritage. But Meninick points out that many aspects of tribal culture are sacred, and tribal communities must remain at the center of how their teachings are interpreted, used, and shared.

“I hope it is retained through our people, the instructors, the elders and whomever else, as opposed to the system taking it over and becoming the experts,” Meninick said.

For Jacob, who is both an expert and a member of the Yakama Nation, teaching the language and surrounding culture to future generations of tribal children – and others who sign up for his classes – is personal.

Because it isn’t just the skills and culture of the language that Jacob is passing on to the next generation – much like his own teachers, his work is shaping what it will look like for future educators, too.

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