Saving Native languages

Lushootseed tribal language teachers, students, and advocates from around Puget Sound gathered at a conference on Saturday May 1 to celebrate the rich cultural inheritance of their Salish language, but also to assess its chances of survival into the 21st century. The conference was guided by the idea that today’s Lushootseed speakers are taking care of the language for the next generation.

Few elders remain who learned Lushootseed as a first language. Tribes are working hard to make sure that the language survives, and the next few years will be critical if the language is to be revitalized and children become fluent speakers.

For decades, federal Indian policy, which aimed at forced assimilation, required children to be removed from their homes and reservation communities, and enrolled in boarding schools, where many were punished or beaten for speaking their Native languages. As a result, generations of Native people either never learned their language, or lost their fluency in it, and many links to traditional culture were broken.

Fortunately, efforts began many years ago to record and preserve Lushootseed, and that documentation is invaluable for today’s language learners.

Recent decades have seen a cultural resurgence in Puget Sound tribal communities, including carving, weaving, canoe making, and efforts to revitalize Lushootseed. New tribal museums and long houses have been constructed, and events such as the annual Canoe Journey involve hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators.

Lushootseed Research was founded in 1983 by the revered Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert (1918 – 2008). Hilbert made it her life’s work to preserve Lushootseed, telling stories, teaching the language at the University of Washington, and lecturing broadly about traditional culture. Hilbert was recognized as a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989, and received numerous awards for her efforts to preserve Lushootseed.

Lushootseed language classes are being taught today in many tribal communities, and hard-won legislative victories have created more opportunities for language instruction in public school settings. More than a decade ago, high school graduation requirements were amended to allow instruction in Native languages to count toward those requirements.

In 2007, Washington state amended its teacher certification process to permit tribal communities to certify language teachers, citing the federal Native American Languages Act (PL 101-477) in acknowledging that “the traditional languages of Native Americans are an integral part of their cultures and identities and form the basic medium for the transmission, and thus survival, of Native American cultures, literatures, histories, religions, political institutions, and values.”

A compelling presentation by Tony Johnson, a Chinook tribal member, described the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde’s success in creating a full immersion program for preschool students. Based on successful “languages nests” developed in Maori communities in New Zealand, and in Native Hawaiian communities, the Grand Ronde have established a school environment where Chinuk is spoken all day, every day by both teachers and students, building fluency in kids ages 3-5, and working with elementary age students to retain their language skills as they transition to public schools. This kind of immersion program has also been successful with K-8 students at the Piegan Institute’s Cuts Wood School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.

Johnson described Grand Ronde’s Masters and Apprentices Program as another successful model for building language fluency, in which an elder who is a fluent speaker works on an individual basis with a youth or adult language learner, and both are paid for their time commitment. Rather than studying a formal curriculum, teacher and student work together informally, speaking their language in “normal life interactions” like doing chores.

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