Teaching Native languages growing in Washington state

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SPOKANE, Wash. – “At my great uncle’s funeral someone got up and spoke in Nselxcin saying, ‘Once again we’ve lost another fluent speaker, and which one of you out there is going to take this challenge and try to preserve our language. It is in danger, it is dying.’”

That’s how Michelle Wiley-Bunting became involved with preserving Native languages. She is now board president of Spokane’s Center for Interior Salish.

“My sister, LaRae Wiley, took that funeral speech to heart and decided she was going to learn the language,” she said. “The first opportunity she got was to connect with the Spokane Tribe language program and get certified as a teacher. There were no opportunities to learn our dialect at that time.”

LaRae asked if she wanted to learn the Spokane dialect and said “yes.” They started learning together.

“Then she got the opportunity to go up to Omak to their language preservation program, and start learning our dialect. She passed that on to me. There was no real language curriculum at that time and we were both struggling. I was very interested in learning the language in which my grandmother was fluent, Nselxcin,” Wiley-Bunting said.

LaRae’s husband, Chris Parkin, is a Spanish teacher. “For the last six years they have teamed up with a fluent elder to record the language and to create vocabulary lists and dialogue sentences for teaching the language in a friendly and productive way,” Wiley-Bunting added.

“It’s really working. Other tribes are adopting the curriculum, the Kalispel Tribe, Colville Tribe, Nespelem. It’s also being taught at Eastern Washington University, and at Spokane Falls Community College. The curriculum is proving to be really effective.” The majority of the students studying Native languages at Spokane Falls are non-Native, and the majority of the students enrolled at Eastern are non-Native, Wiley-Bunting said.

She estimates the number of people studying the fading Native American languages in the Northwest is in the hundreds.

“It’s catching hold and spreading. We feel like there’s a new movement afoot. People are becoming interested. We’ve all been pulled away from our language for so many different reasons and now people are starting to realize, ‘Man, this is important. We need to reconnect with our language and our culture because we’re losing our way.’”

JR Bluff has become a part of the new language learning movement spreading across the inland northwest.

“I work for the Kalispel Tribe, a small tribe in northeast Washington, as director of the tribe’s cultural program and head of the language program,” Bluff said. He kept hearing from the tribe’s elders about the need to teach the language. There are 400 people in the tribe and they are down to five fluent Salish speakers.

“We started our program four or five years ago,” Bluff said. “We created the curriculum from scratch.” He started with one student. Now he has two other teachers working with him, teaching in grades K-12 of the Cusick School District, passing the language on to 150 students a year. And the language is spreading beyond the tribe. “About 50 percent of the class members are Native Americans.”

There is no writing, Bluff says of his teaching methods. “You just go to class and listen. At the end of the course you’ll be speaking the language.”

A college language course is taught evenings for adults, accredited through EWU.

“I’ve seen language work miracles.” Wiley-Bunting said. “Being introduced to the language of their culture really changes peoples’ lives. It’s done that for me, and for my family – being able to reconnect with who we really are – learn the language in which our grandmother was fluent.

“We’ve started a small Nselxcin language school in my basement. We started with four Indian girls. ... That’s our current passion. We speak the language eight hours a day. They go on interpretive walks, dig roots; all in the language context. It’s absolutely amazing the difference we’ve seen in these kids in their language acquisition, just since January.”

Their word for “car” means “wrinkled feet” from the tire tread marks in the dirt. “Computer” is “fake brain.”

The Center for Interior Salish is a nonprofit whose mission is to promote the use, preservation and revitalization of Interior Salish languages.