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Nkwusm works to preserve Salish language

ARLEE, Mont. – Nkwusm, a Salish Language immersion school on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation in Arlee, Mont. had its first graduation June 12.

Three boys and one girl, all 14 years old finished their language immersion program and next year will move into the public school system.

Located in an old bowling alley built in the late 1970s, the school has renovated the building into classrooms, and a capital campaign is in progress to raise funds for a new building. Inside, the classrooms look like any other school, except for the Salish alphabet on the walls and artwork depicting Salish cultural activities, and the sounds of children talking and singing in Salish. The school itself is operated by the Nkwusm Salish Language Revitalization Institute, a nonprofit formed in 2003 to research, promote and preserve the Salish Language.

In 2002, while working as an administrator for the Ronan Public Schools, Julie Cajune, Nkwusm’s development director, received a 2002 Milken National Educator Award. She also works on the Montana Tribal History Project to gather tribal histories for curriculum development. Montana is the first state in the nation to require the teaching of American Indian history in public school classrooms. At Nkwusm, she works to develop the institute’s fundraising and awareness with the public about teaching methods and the nature of classes.

“Students get a basic curriculum as in any preschool, such as science and math,” Cajune said. “But we also teach songs and other cultural things that the community does.” She said each class has an instructional aide, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and a fluent Salish speaker.

The immersion aspects include intensive instruction in Salish for the younger 30 or so students. “We feel that reading skills from one language will transfer to another, so our third and fourth graders start an English literacy program, but until third grade, we teach Salish reading and writing for emergent literacy learning.”

Salish is an endangered language – with around 50 fluent speakers among the Montana Salish, and the Kalispel in Washington State and the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, two other dialects which are closely related to the Salish Nkwusm teaches – and it can be difficult to get fluent speakers interested in classroom teaching.

But Nkwusm is continuing to grow. Cajune said this fall they are starting an adult education program. “Our classroom teachers will spend half a day in immersion so the adults will be able to use Salish in all of their conversations.” Increasing the number of fluent speakers is critical for the survival of the language, because the community has lost 35 fluent speakers over the last four years.

By the end of five months, Cajune said the adults will have conversational fluency so they won’t have to use English at all in the classroom. In another two years “we will saturate the staff, and then we’ll have 20 staff who are conversationally fluent.”

In revitalizing Salish, one of the major concerns is the state of the vocabulary. Patrick Pierre, 80, one of the fluent speakers, knows the full, older language, which is much richer in meaning. Many people speak in the newer, abbreviated form of the language. “People have been shortening the words in order to talk faster, but we are committed to teaching the long, older language,” Cajune said.

Nkwusm had a graduation pow wow the day after school ended for the year, and there, Pierre said many Salish speakers used shorter Salish words like “slang,” and he worked with them to teach the full language, where there was much more meaning than the shortened vocabulary, what he called “kid” Salish.

Proud of his students, Patrick was in his full dance outfit for the pow wow. “Now, I want to see these students graduate from high school as fluent speakers.”

One of the co-founders of Nkwusm, Chaney Bell is the curriculum specialist. He has produced CDs of language lessons and several language books. He is also involved in filming and recording the fluent speakers in all kinds of cultural activities.

He said that with starting a tribal language program, “there’s always political things; both positive and negative. But what we do is concentrate on the positive, because what we’re doing is very long term. We’re going to keep working and also be respectful and supportive of others, and we hope that all the community issues will work themselves out.”

He said that because even English is a changing language, “for us to decide what written Salish will be right now is impossible, and we feel the problems with the written forms will work themselves out over the next 30 or 40 years.”

Another cofounder of Nkwusm and the current executive director, Tachini Pete has worked the last 10 years on the latest dictionary the school published, which contains the original forms of Salish vocabulary and examples of their use. He developed the computer fonts for word processing in both Salish and Kootenai, which are in use at Nkwusm and available for download on the school’s Web site.

Nkwusm gets 70 percent of its funding from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes and the rest from private support and foundations. The school just finished holding its first fundraiser in Missoula (25 miles south of Arlee) earlier this month, and raised more than $100,000. The school also received a major three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

At the graduation pow wow, a drum group sang an honor song for the four graduates and their families after the Veteran’s Warrior Society color guard lead the grand entry. It was a small pow wow, but Nkwusm’s goals are nothing short of producing many graduates who are fluent in Salish and cultural traditions, and from now on, each graduation pow wow will be larger than the last.