In 1990, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe estimates only eight people knew how to speak the Klallam language. Now they’re putting it on street signs.
Earlier this month, the city of Port Angeles, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, installed bilingual street signs at two intersections, honoring the local Klallam people, whose culture has existed in the area for approximately 10,000 years. The street signs at the intersections of Oak and Front streets and on Oak Street and Railroad Avenue are now displayed in both English and Klallam.
The new signs are part of a phased redevelopment of the Port Angeles waterfront, according to Nathan West, the city’s Director of Community and Economic Development.
“As a matter of priority, the city wanted to incorporate cultural elements important to the Klallam people,” West told ICTMN. “Phase 2 of the project established a new downtown park, the goal of which was to embrace the local Klallam community by celebrating their longstanding heritage on the waterfront.”
The city held meetings with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council to help create nine cultural elements to be incorporated in the park’s theme.
“The Tribe was asked to provide names for two newly created beaches that replaced a riprap shoreline. Two circle-up areas were constructed out of respect for traditional tribal canoe journey circle-up areas. One of the circle-up areas implemented a medallion with the Klallam creation story. Cultural and historic markers extend along the Waterfront Trail in the park, creating a timeline that begins with important dates in Klallam history and integrates European settlement history with important Klallam cultural dates.”
Courtesy Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe
A chart showing the sounds of the Klallam language is arranged according to where and how the sound is produced in the mouth.
The idea of having bilingual street signs for intersections near the park originally came from city council member Sissi Bruch, who is also Senior Planner of the Elwha Klallam Tribe’s Planning Department. Klallam Language teacher Wendy Sampson helped with the translations. The city’s Public Works and Utilities Department elicited the assistance of local company Bailey’s Signs to ensure accurate and appropriate fonts and characters were used. West also notes how Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Chair Frances Charles aided the grant funding of the project with her letters of support and Jamestown S’Klallam CEO Ron Allen also supported the project from its conception.
The S’Klallam Tribe, or the “Strong People,"” are a Salish cultural and linguistic group with ties to tribes of British Columbia and also Puget Sound. A realignment of the original villages in the mid-1800s created three separate groups of S’Klallam: the Jamestown Tribe, the Lower Elwha Reservation, and the Port Gamble Reservation.
According to their website, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe estimates in 1990, only eight people knew how to speak Klallam. In 1992, the tribe developed the Klallam Language Program in which tribal elders were recorded and those recordings transcribed to document and preserve the Klallam language. However, creating a record is not sufficient to save an indigenous language from extinction.
“You have to learn your language; it’s the backbone of your culture,” Jamie Valdez, who teaches Klallam at Port Angeles High School, says on the tribe’s website. “If you don’t learn your language, you can’t truly practice your culture. If you are just practicing without any language, you are just touching the surface. You have to go deeper and learn the language, you have to use the language.”
Since 1999, when the language first began being taught at Port Angeles High School, over 200 students have taken two years of Klallam language instruction. Adult language classes are also available as well as video games and CD-ROM Klallam language lessons.
In addition to rejuvenating interest in learning their tribe’s language, the work of the Klallam people to revitalize their culture has now influenced a city government. Nathan West, of the city of Port Angeles, who spearheaded the waterfront redevelopment project, described a new attitude of coexistence and harmony with indigenous communities that didn’t exist even a few decades ago.
“Collectively our goal with the park and street signs is to demonstrate that we are one community, and respect of the important cultural heritage of the Klallam people is an essential element in accomplishing that goal.”
The work of indigenous language revitalization is often said to be one of the main elements of decolonization. The bilingual street signs near Waterfront Park in Port Angeles are evidence of this principle in action.