By Jack McNeel -- Today correspondent
WELLPINIT, Wash. - The Spokane Tribe recently hosted its first ''Honor the Salish Language'' conference at Wellpinit High School. Organizers hope it becomes an annual event dedicated to preserving the Salish language and exchanging ideas on ways of teaching it.
Spokane elder Joe Flett, who served as the conference's master of ceremonies, recognized tribal elder Ann McCrea for her idea for such a day.
''Language is important to Indian people, for without the language we lose our identity, our culture. Language and culture are one and the same,'' he said.
The idea was to bring people together to exchange ideas and see what other tribes are doing to preserve the language and teach it to the young and the community in general.
Various speakers throughout the day from several tribes reflected on the loss of people who are fluent in the Salish language and how it's seldom spoken in homes anymore, thus preventing children from learning it at a young age. Pat Moses, Spokane, questioned how long there would even be speakers fluent in the language, as the few that still speak are rapidly passing on.
Merle Andrew Sr., Spokane, has been teaching language classes to third- to sixth-grade students here since 2004. He explained how the kids seem to have a great appreciation for the language and spoke of their improvement during the year, ''almost bringing tears to my eyes.'' He teaches the cultural activities of the various seasons.
''They seem to absorb those things pretty well because they are involved in those activities throughout the year,'' Andrew said. He stressed listening, making it fun and giving the students respect so they aren't made to feel incompetent.
Bill Matt, Spokane, was raised in a traditional family.
''You don't wake up and have tradition; you are raised that way from childhood,'' he said.
He spoke of his mother before her death and how she desired to speak to those fluent in Salish so she didn't have to use a ''borrowed language'' to express her thoughts.
''Stories are more true in the Salish language than when told in English,'' he said. Another person commented, ''Jokes seem to be funnier in Indian.''
Tony Incashola, Pend d'Oreille, is from the Flathead Reservation. He spoke about how Native peoples had survived a lot including wars, termination and smallpox.
''We have much to be thankful for today and I think it is our language that has kept us together, that has helped us survive. It is language that has kept us Indian people and we continue to survive because of our language. Our culture is in our language. To survive in the future we have to hold on to our language,'' Incashola said.
''Our ceremonies, our prayers, our stories - everything that's important to us is in our language. Without it we are not different, we are not special,'' he added.
He spoke of those who pushed to keep the language alive and who have now passed.
''Today it is on our shoulders. It's up to us to show our children how important language is.''
Incashola has been collecting information for the past 33 years from elders. They now have over 1,200 audio tapes of interviews and stories. They are assembling the information so children will learn and understand the history, culture and language. Time is becoming urgent while those elders are still alive. He said it inspires him to continue when he sees groups of people striving to keep the language and culture alive as this conference is doing.
Stephen Small Salmon, Pend d'Oreille, also from the Flathead Reservation, brought two students with him to help illustrate their language program. Aspen Smith, 14, and Nicole Perry, 8, both spoke in Salish and demonstrated their knowledge by responding in Salish to questions asked by Small Salmon in Salish and identifying photos of animals as he pointed to them. They are two of 33 students taking language classes. Smith is the oldest in the class and indicates an interest in eventually becoming a Salish language teacher herself.
Numerous people spoke throughout the day. Felix Aripa, an elder from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, mentioned how expressions change the meaning of words. He noticed, even in the 1930s, that the language was fading but added, ''It's good to see our language sticking its head up like the sun coming up,'' and said how good a feeling he got in hearing young people like Smith and Perry speak the language.