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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Last fluent speaker of n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ language dies at 96

Pauline Stensgar, the last fluent speaker of the nxaɁmxčín language.  (Courtesy)

Pauline Stensgar, the last fully fluent speaker of the n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ language, died Tuesday. She was 96.

A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation , Stensgar dedicated her life to preserving and revitalizing the language.

Her most recent project was establishing a n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ dictionary with the Colville Tribes’ Language Program, which is near completion.

“She had such love for her language and her people,” said Christopher Parkin, principal of the Salish School of Spokane.

n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓, pronounced something like “in-ha-um-cheen” and called Wenatchee-Columbian Salish in English, belongs to the Moses-Columbia, Wenatchee, Entiat and Chelan bands of the Colville Tribes.

It is one of four Southern Interior Salish languages. There are 29 Salish languages across the Northwest, some of which are extinct and the rest are critically endangered.

Stensgar’s name in n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ is Qʷiy̓mátkʷ. n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ was her first language.

“We will never have another fully fluent speaker,” said Tammy James, director of employment and education for the Colville Tribes.

Stensgar, of Keller Washington, worked for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation for 48 years and was the Tribes’ eldest employee. During her long career, Stensgar worked with the Area Agency on Aging as a handywoman, assistant cook and foster grandparent. For the last 24 years, she worked with the Tribe’s Language Program as the senior elder instructor.

In 2014, she worked with the Salish School of Spokane to develop three textbooks for a n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ curriculum. The school teaches an extensive curriculum in the sister language n̓səl̓xčin̓, Colville Salish.

Parkin recalled meeting with Stensgar over an eight-month period, recording and transcribing their conversations. The resulting textbooks are available as free pdf files at

“She was a true representative of strong Southern Interior Salish women,” Parkin said.

The Southern Interior Salish cultures were equitable among genders and women held a lot of power.

“Pauline took that into the modern age with her strength and intelligence,” he continued. “It’s really phenomenal what she achieved.”

Preserving a language is difficult.

“This is the work of overcoming genocide,” Parkin said.

Indigenous languages are endangered because of a legacy of active repression and forced assimilation that lasted until the 1980s, he said. Pauline’s generation was forced into residential schools where Native Americans were punished if they spoke their language and parents were discouraged from teaching their children.

Fourteen first-language speakers have died since 2005, James said.

But thanks to Stensgar’s efforts, the language is preserved for anyone who wants to learn it.

The Colville Tribes have hundreds of hours of her recordings, which are an invaluable resource that will help the language live on.

n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ classes are taught for dual credit at Lake Roosevelt High School in Coulee Dam and at Wenatchee Community College.

Living students of the language include two second language speakers, three in advanced proficiency, five intermediate and 43 beginners, James said.

Stensgar was kind, generous, humorous and accepting to all people, James said, and her cultural knowledge is irreplaceable.

“The Colville Tribes always mourns the loss of a tribal member,” said Colville Business Council Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson, “but the loss of a language speaker and tribal member of Pauline’s status is truly incalculable. The entire world is poorer for her loss.”

Erickson ordered tribal flags to fly at half-staff in her honor.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.