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Saving Languages in the NW 

by Ann M. Colford


On the Spokane Indian Reservation, some parents are struggling to keep up with the latest words and phrases their kids are bringing home from school. Are they the latest song lyrics? Code words from a new video game? Bryan Flett, the heritage coordinator for the Spokane Tribe of Indians, says parents of children in the Wellpinit School District need not be concerned; the kids simply are trying out their new-found skill using the Spokane dialect of the Salish language, the native tongue of the Spokane people.


"We started language classes three years ago with our Head Start kids, so some kids are now in their second or third year of study," he says. "We're starting to see the language used in the community again on a limited basis."


Teaching the language to children in the school district is having an unexpected side benefit. Flett says parents now are requesting adult education classes so they can learn along with the children. "The kids are forcing the adults to learn the language. The kids come home and they're looking for help with homework, or they're saying things and the parents want to know what they're saying," he explains. "It makes parents nervous when they don't understand what the kids are saying."


The tribe has developed a program with the Wellpinit School District to teach classes at all levels from Head Start through high school, Flett says. Two instructors currently teach the language to more than 200 students. Flett's mother, Pauline, is a tribal elder and language specialist who has worked for more than 20 years with the language's phonetic system in order to produce a written form. She and another fluent elder train the school district instructors.


But learning a few words and phrases is just a small part of maintaining a language. Flett estimates that there are only 25 to 30 fluent speakers of the Spokane language out of a tribal enrollment of nearly 2,200 people. Creating new fluent speakers takes time, and when tribes have only a few fluent elders left, time becomes critical. Linguists and other language specialists know that language is one of the primary transmitters of culture, and culture is embedded within the language.


"Language to us is more than just saying words or being able to make sentences," Flett says. "Our language is so descriptive. Within the language you have history, spirituality and belief systems." By teaching the language, Flett and others in the tribe hope to build a bridge to the traditional culture for children growing up in 21st-century America. "We will be teaching a healthy and better belief system in these kids to help them fit into both worlds," he says. "We hope to build their self-esteem so they can avoid self-destructive behavior."





Other tribes around the region have developed language education programs similar to those of the Spokane Tribe. In North Idaho, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe offers language classes from elementary school through college, and the tribal school board recently embarked on a program to further develop the curriculum in tribal schools. The Nez Perce Tribe has more fluent speakers left than many surrounding tribes, but language programs are still a vital part of the tribe's education programs. Classes in the Nez Perce language are now part of the course offerings at the University of Idaho as well, according to Rodney Frey, acting director of the American Indian Studies department.


"We're now doing two full years of the Nez Perce language here at the university," he says. "So, a student can fulfill the university's language requirement with Nez Perce."


To the north, the Kalispel Tribe also has language classes among its cultural offerings. And further east, on the Flathead reservation in Montana, students at the tribal Salish Kootenai College study up to two years of either the Salish language or the Kootenai language as part of their degree programs.


Back on the Spokane reservation, Bryan Flett says the next step is to produce some books in the Spokane language. "We now have the language written, and we're teaching [our students] to read it," he says. "So they've got to have something to read."


The tribal language specialists have written out about 60 of the traditional stories in both Salish and English, and the tribe wants to put them together into a book with the languages side by side. For younger children, the tribe just released a CD recording of familiar children's songs and nursery rhymes in Salish. "We're trying to reach kids through all media of learning -- cassettes, CDs, interactives on the computer," he says. "It would be great to have a publisher come work with us to get the written stories out in print," Flett adds. "We could sure use some help."
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