WARM SPRINGS, Ore. (AP) – At first Merle Kirk and Adeline Miller were inseparable. For eight hours a day, the two went over language drills. Miller, a tribal elder, would say a word in her native Ishichkin, and Kirk would repeat it. They traveled and taught together. Kirk listened without interrupting.
Five years ago, Kirk was recruited by the Culture and Heritage Department for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to serve as Miller’s apprentice.
The responsibility of learning Miller’s native language, Ishichkin, of absorbing the traditional songs and mastering tribal crafts has never worried Kirk.
Although there are other efforts to preserve native languages, Kirk is the only apprentice learning Ishichkin through the Culture and Heritage Department. The program was initially started by a grant that has since dried up.
But Kirk, 36, continues to learn.
“When they told me I was going to be her apprentice, I was so excited,” she said.
“Our goal is to keep the language alive. I have to do my best to teach what she has taught me. ... There is learning everywhere. Even if we’re just driving, she’ll share a memory.”
Since she was 12 years old and her great-grandmother died, leaving her language books behind, Kirk has taken an interest in learning the language her ancestors spoke.
It’s a language that only about 20 people on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation can speak fluently, according to an official from the Culture and Heritage Department.
“We needed someone to become more fluent, and (Kirk) was a natural choice,” said Myra Johnson-Orange, the director of the Culture and Heritage Department. “Because of her heritage, her family lines. ... We kind of recruited her. Her teaching abilities were good, her creativeness that kids can learn from.”
Although the immersion part of the apprenticeship is over, nearly every weekday morning Kirk picks Miller up from her home and the two drive to the Early Childhood Education Center in Warm Springs.
There, in front of a circle of 4- and 5-year-old children, the two women sing in Ishichkin.
“We are doing our best to get the language in the kids’ hearts, so they can move on from that,” Kirk said.
Miller, who said staying busy and working crosswords puzzles has kept her mind sharp, lets Kirk take the lead.
In the 88-year-old’s life, there has been a switch from her childhood days of boarding-room schools that forbade any language but English, to a desperate attempt to impress the native languages upon the young.
“The songs help them remember,” Miller said. “I tell them to just keep singing.”
Johnson-Orange is hoping in the future there will be more partnerships like Kirk and Miller’s.
“We’re Native American people, and essentially our languages continue to identify that,” Johnson-Orange said. “It strengthens our sovereignty and maintains our people as tribal people.”
Kirk said it’s the best job in the world.
“It’s an honor,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn, but it doesn’t stress me out. ... The main story (Miller) always shares is we weren’t selfish people, we were generous and humble. ... She’s fun, she’s really fun. I have to be listening all the time.”
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