Special to Indian Country Today
On the Skokomish Indian Reservation, a heavily forested land 25 miles northwest of Olympia, Washington, the Skokomish Indian Tribe’s native language is only recently reemerging after lying dormant for decades.
In the community center, the rooms have labels in both English and the language Tuwaduq — “KITCHEN” and “kukWaltxW” — and a whiteboard features the tongue’s 42-letter alphabet, with a cartoon of birds illustrating Tuwaduq vocabulary.
The last fluent speaker of Tuwaduq died in 1980, leaving it without native speakers, the people who grew up with it as a first language. But the Twana Language Project is trying to bring it back to the community.
Christie Chambless is the leader of the project, and for two years, she has been teaching words and phrases of Tuwaduq to about 200 middle-school students. She and her family first learned her language in 2014 in a poorly attended class that nevertheless ignited her interest.
“We were hooked because it was a connection to our pasts,” she says. “In our family, we didn't have that.”
She and a few other tribal members organized to spread the language even further and received funding in 2017 from the Administration for Native Americans to “establish the foundation for reviving the Twana Language of the Skokomish people.”
To Chambless, as well as many other Native Americans, language is more than a form of communication — it also carries cultural significance, knowledge and identity.
“Culture and language are so intertwined,” she says. “I think the biggest thing is that feeling of wholeness, of being able to pray and mourn and celebrate in our language.”
For this reason, she hopes to turn her community into lifelong language learners.
More than 100 Native languages have lost all their native speakers, and, like the Skokomish, many other tribes are trying to revive their original languages and the cultural meanings they carry. Government and Native agencies have recently provided more funding for language revitalizations to save and expand languages spoken across the U.S., and a few tribes have seen their language rebound, such as the Ojibwe and Wampanoag. Many others, however, face an uphill battle to effectively reintroduce the words of their ancestors.
Before Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, the Americas were home to remarkable language diversity. More than 2,000 different languages spoken by more than 15 million Indigenous people across the two continents, and about 300 languages flourished north of modern-day Mexico.. Native peoples passed down their languages orally and never wrote them down, much like the rest of their cultural heritage.
But upon arrival, European settlers began their assault on Native culture, including language. Through genocide, slavery, relocation and other violent acts, the colonists suppressed or eliminated Native peoples and their cultures.
Similar policies of intolerance exacerbated language loss for Native American tribes in the United States. Beginning in the 1870s, the federal government forcibly separated Native youth from their families and placed them in boarding schools, where they were taught — often in unhealthy and abusive environments — to forget their culture and embrace Western culture and ideas. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” said Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the first Native American boarding school in 1873. Additionally, many Native families decided not to teach their native language at home, in fear of their children being socially ostracized or economically left behind.
Today, there are fluent speakers of only about 175 Native languages, according to Babbel Magazine. A 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report counted about 360,000 people who speak 150 Indigenous languages, though nearly half of them speak Navajo. That leaves three-quarters of Native Americans who only speak English.
For the Skokomish, religion and language began their decline as early as the 1880s, Chambless says, after their first contact with an American missionary in the 1860s and an effort to spread Christianity in the tribe. Many Skokomish people were often shamed into abandoning Tuwaduq in favor of English. “There was a big emphasis on ‘Oh, don't speak that, the language is dirty because all of those hissing and spitting sounds,’” she says.
The Quileute Indian Tribe is located on the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles west of the Skokomish, and it lost the last native speaker of its language, Kwo'liyot'isq'wa, in 1999. Phrases of the language can be heard in some of the members’ greetings or songs, but its role in the community remains limited. James Jaime, a Quileute tribal elder, sees the loss of tremendous value without the language spoken in his community, and he has been organizing a language education program to try to bring it back. Without knowing their language, many Native Americans struggle to connect with their culture and develop their personal identity, Jaime says. “It’s part of who we are, it’s part of our identity,” he says, “and we need our language to help our identity.”
By losing their language, Native Americans may also lose important knowledge about the world around them. In a time when climate change and other environmental pressures threaten the well-being of the Quileute and other coastal tribes, many don’t have access to the traditional ecological knowledge embedded in their language that could help them adapt to and address the threat.
“Words have so much meaning other than what is defined by the English dictionary,” Jaime says. “(The words) come from the land, they come from the people. The meaning of a singular word could be described in a paragraph (in English), and the English dictionary may not have an English word that accurately describes a particular Quileute word.”
Unless the words’ meanings were carefully recorded by tribal members and outside scholars, they could be forever lost to the community — though other times, that knowledge lives on in tribal members. The Quileute Tribe used to have a weatherman society whose members knew the good and bad times to go fishing or pick berries, Jaime says, and some of his friends display a similarly deep knowledge of nature. Even with what has been lost through language, Jaime is optimistic his people can maintain their connection with their surroundings.
“It’s alive in everybody,” he says. “When we live in this environment and live in this climate and this whole practice of survival, you already have that knowledge instilled into you.”
What can return
A language with no living native speakers is labeled as “extinct” by many linguists and cultural institutions, but many Native Americans argue the word is misleading. Many “extinct” Native languages exist in writing and are spoken in a limited capacity by tribal members.
While severely endangered languages have been brought back from the brink and profilerated — The Māori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand, successfully revitalized te reo Māori in the 1980s — those without any native speakers have almost never regained fully fluent populations.
To anthropological linguist Jay Powell, who has studied the Quileute language for more than 50 years, language revitalization programs aiming for full fluency of these languages will most likely disappoint and discourage participants. “Of course everyone wants to develop a program that will bring back what's been lost,” he says. “On the other hand, when a (people) has lost their language, there are no speakers, which means there are no teachers.”
Powell, who is not Quileute, is nonetheless fluent in the language after decades of working with native speakers to document it. (He is known in the community as “Kwosh Kwosh,” which is Quileute for “Blue Jay” and a play on his first name.) Powell says a more practical goal is partial fluency, enough command of a language for basic social interactions. Although he differentiates partial fluency from “language revitalization,” Powell says it can powerfully strengthen tribal members’ sense of identity. He is currently developing a partial fluency curriculum for the Quileute alongside Jaime.
“Having the language used in the community would be a wonderful contribution to the community's sense of who they are, their heritage and their history,” Powell says. “Being able to say things in your language is a portable symbol of group identity; when you want to let someone know that you really are a Quileute, you can just say something in the language.”
A similar program is already in place at the Quinault Indian Nation, another Washington tribe. The Quinault lost its last native speaker of their language, kwinayɫ ɫEk, in 1996. For nearly four years, Cosette Terry-itewaste has been the lead teacher and language developer at the Quinault Language Department. She focuses on teaching phrases rather than individual words to better prepare for social interactions, and she often teaches kwinayɫ ɫEk to entire families.
“That's where people learn their language,” says Terry-itewaste, who received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Arizona, with a focus on language revitalization. “They're learning it at home first, not learning it in school.”
The kwinayɫ ɫEk teaching materials, such as dictionaries and translation guides, are derived from recordings of tribal elders and notes from outside scholars going back as early as 1920. At least 150 Quinault members have taken classes in kwinayɫ ɫEk, and Terry-itewaste hopes to eventually create new words for the language and develop online learning tools to reach even more people in the community. “We'd like to hear our language spoken daily throughout our community,” she says, even if it’s not the only language they speak. “It’s a gift from our ancestors, and we need our language to help our identity.”
Back on the Skokomish reservation, Chambless has similar doubts about fluency. “Fluency is a funny thing in language: We could be exploring this language and documenting this language and promoting and teaching this language for the rest of our lives and still not be fluent,” she says. “We will never have the type of fluency that our ancestors had.”
Instead, she hopes that bringing back Tuwaduq in a limited form — prayers, songs, greetings, small talk —will nevertheless revitalize her community’s culture. The goal for the Twana Language Project, Chambless says, is to someday provide classes to all members of the Skokomish Indian Tribe.
“If we all continue to learn and explore, then our language can't die,” she says. “Even if we're not 100% fluent, we will still have our language.”
Zack Fishman is a graduate student studying science and environmental journalism at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @ZBFishman.