Decades of government policies aimed at forcibly assimilating Native Americans, guided by the notion of “kill the Indian and save the man,” included generations of Indigenous children ripped away from their families and placed in boarding schools, where speaking their language was forbidden.
The cumulative result was the severe diminishment and, at times, complete loss of Indigenous languages across North America.
That legacy set the backdrop for the formation of the Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI) in Oregon in 1997. Twenty-five years later, the institute’s work remains as urgent and important as ever.
“We often ask ourselves, ‘How do we address the pain that people have and the shame that they have about language?’” NILI Director Robert Elliott said recently from the organization’s headquarters in Eugene.
Ichishkíin language teachers from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Yakama Nation founded NILI in response to tribal communities’ interest in honoring and maintaining their languages. Inspired by the American Indian Language Development Institute, the founders worked with the University of Oregon (UO) to start their institute, dedicated to supporting and strengthening language revitalization through tribal, academic and community partnerships.
For the last 25 years, NILI has been committed to establishing and providing language curriculum, teacher trainings and language documentation. It has created programs and collaborated on projects designed to meet the needs of endangered language communities. For many Indigenous peoples, language is an integral part of identity, culture and healing.
“Being able to really experience a language is something that is not about reading from a textbook or something you only do in a classroom; it's about people and being motivated to learn language because you want to connect with people,” Elliott said. “We're open to working with any tribes around. We’ve had people come from all over the Pacific Northwest, even from places as far out as Mississippi, Oklahoma, Florida, Canada, New York, Hawaii, so all over basically. NILI is open to anyone who wants to learn.”
Many tribal families have been victims of American Indian Residential Schools, also known as boarding schools, where Indigenous children were placed after being taken from their families. Hundreds of thousands of children were punished and often beaten for using their Native language, a brutal attempt at forced assimilation conducted by the U.S. federal government that lasted through the 1960s.
“That’s one of the reasons for the language loss, right, because many elders didn't want to pass on the language because it caused a lot of pain in their life,” Elliott said. “And they were told it wasn't worthwhile or useful, so they didn't teach their kids, because they didn't want them to have the same problems as they did. So there becomes this ideology that your Native language or Indigenous language is harmful or bad or useless, and yet you're lost, because that's part of your identity.”
Programs like NILI are helping to heal the trauma caused by the devastating effects of assimilation through language revitalization and preservation efforts.
“Every tribe is different; every language situation context is different,” Elliott said. “I think the first thing people need to realize is the value of language. So, to stand up and say, ‘my language has value and I want to learn it, and I'm going to speak it’ — that, to me, is like the ultimate rebellion against the powers that be.”
The institute is a partner of UO and operates under the guidance of an advisory board composed of Indigenous members. Faculty and staff operate out of the NILI building on campus when needed, but there are currently no full-time staff. The program operates on a small budget and relies on the generosity of outside donors.
According to its website, NILI is among a handful of programs that play a role in attracting, retaining and educating Indigenous students at UO.
NILI operates as a year-round program but is especially proud of its Summer Institute, which is open to participants from Native communities locally, nationally and internationally. The Summer Institute provides a space for everyone to learn Indigenous language teaching strategies and language documentation, and helps in creating teaching materials.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NILI’s Summer Institute and similar in-person programming have undergone a massive reconstruction. Prioritizing the protection of elders and vulnerable populations from lingering health issues of the pandemic, NILI made the decision to move forward this year with a solely online program for the third consecutive summer. The Summer Institute ended July 1.
“Before the pandemic, the NILI house was bustling with lots of students and projects they were working on and was full of opportunity for anyone to get involved — and then post pandemic, we haven't picked up the pieces yet,” Elliott said. “I still feel like we're shattered over there, and I go in and it's empty all the time. It's just awful.”
Allyson Alvarado, who goes by Tayksíki, of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, is a current UO graduate student and said NILI played a major role in her recruitment to the school.
“I had a couple different options for school but none of them had the strong Native community like UO and NILI provided,” Tayksíki said. “They've always told me that I could study at NILI, go into the ‘house’ and work there. They have just always provided support, always asking how I am or what's going on. It’s just a very inclusive environment.”
Tayksíki lives with Virginia Beavert, also known as Tuxámshish, who is a Yakama Nation elder and one of NILI’s original founders. Beavert, who turned 100 years old in November and has been a key figure in helping shape the institute for the last 25 years, is a highly respected teacher and fluent speaker of her tribal language, Sahaptin. She currently sits on NILI’s advisory board.
“I feel very privileged to learn from Tuxámshish, but it also feels like a lot of pressure because people are always asking, ‘Do you know how lucky you are?’” Tayksíki said. “But she's really helpful and encouraging. She’ll tell me to stop focusing on the linguistics of the language and to just speak it and not think too hard about it. I feel very lucky to be living with and learning from her.”
Recognizing the impactful and important work that NILI has done for the past 25 years, The Roundhouse Foundation announced a grant this year that will support new innovative outreach and language programs for Oregon tribes, including the completion of a needs assessment, traveling to spread awareness about NILI and more.
Erin Borla, executive director and trustee for The Roundhouse Foundation, said in a statement that “supporting Tribal Nations is a core part of our mission at The Roundhouse Foundation, and language preservation is essential to supporting the heritage and culture of Indigenous cultures and Tribal communities.”
“NILI serves a critical role in this arena,” Borla continued, “and, as they move into the next phase of their organization, we are happy to support their efforts to authentically connect with the Tribal communities they serve so they may deeply understand how to enhance their program.”
The funding will help NILI initiate contact with more language leaders from Oregon tribes and tribal partners throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as the institute’s existing members.
“What (Roundhouse has) done is they have given us a way to go out and visit each tribe, maybe host them for food and make connections,” Elliott said.
The grant offers an opportunity to create new approaches to understanding the language needs of tribal nations, while helping the institute to strengthen relationships within these communities, in addition to supporting current preservation efforts. It will help NILI look to its next 25 years of working with all levels of language ability, from new learners to fluent speakers.
Tayksíki notes that, while it can feel overwhelming to begin learning a traditional language, “even if you're speaking a little bit of the language or you're trying, that's a lot in itself.”
“So just have a positive mindset and know that you don't have to be at a Native speaker level,” Tayksíki said. “You can be at your own level, or you could just work to speak the language and know that that's enough.”
“I feel like when learning your language, you’re seeing the world the way your ancestors did,” she continued. “And so I think that's really important to keep in mind: languages are connected and intertwined to our cultural practices … I probably wouldn't be where I am today without NILI and all the people that have come out of NILI. My language teachers from the past have been products of NILI and have brought us together, and I’m really happy about that.”
McKayla Lee attends the University of Montana and is the inaugural recipient of the Underscore Indigenous Journalism Fellowship.
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.