The voice of generations

Written by at April 20, 2011

Efforts to revive Salish language thrive on several fronts

Alyssa Nenemay

SPOKANE, Wash. ­– Patrick Pierre’s lifelong passion with the Salish language has been a guide in his life. Recently, it led him to the hectic Pend d’Orielle Pavillion in the massive Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

He seemed a world away, attending the Celebrating Salish 2011 Conference. Pierre had left behind his Greek wife and sweat lodge on the shores of Dog Lake, Mont., driving three hours to be recognized for his extensive work in revitalizing the ancient tribal language.

“I spoke the language until I was six years old. Then I had to learn English in order to go to school in Camas Prairie,” he said.

Pierre fidgeted with his silver hair, clearly missing the beige cowboy hat that was usually atop his head.

Over the course of his 82 years, Pierre had seen his native tongue nearly disappear. He is now at the forefront of several efforts to revive the Salish language ensuring its existence into the future.

“The language started to dwindle about the mid-40’s, we started to get shortened words,” he said. “By about the end of the 40’s a lot of young people quit speaking the language, and by the mid-50’s, all the young people were speaking English. I saw the decline.”

Sadness darkened Pierre’s eyes as he recalled the consequences he said, resulted from the loss of the Salish language for the tribal people of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

“When they started losing their language, their whole personality began to change,” he said. “They began to turn to the dominant society ways and got into a lot of things that weren’t good for them. Drinking or drugs, and what have you.”

The Pend d’Orielle tribal elder glanced out the door as ringing Keno machines echoed from the nearby smoke-filled casino room.

“There was a few of us that hung in there because we didn’t want to lose the language,” said Pierre. “My parents told me: ‘If you lose your language you lose your identity. You don’t know who you are no more, you don’t have no roots. So you need to always speak your language.’”

Teaching the language

Pierre sipped from his stainless steel travel mug, a tiny pink paper heart taped to it’s front.

“One of my students put that heart on there for me,” he said. “I teach the oldest class at Nk’wusm (a Salish language immersion school located in Arlee, Montana). I’m teaching them that they need to be who they are. They should never-ever think that they’re part of the dominant society. They never will be.”

Pierre’s trip to the sprawling casino for the March conference is the latest effort he has made to maintain the Salish language, which is spoken by Native American tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S and parts of Canada. There are 23 tribally specific dialects of the Salishan language family, which stem from three main sub groups: Coastal Salish, Interior Salish, and Bella Coola.

According to “Anthropological Linguistics,” an Indiana University language and culture quarterly journal, Salish is unrelated to any existing language and has been in a state of decline since colonization. The decline is a result of governmental relocation, traumas associated with boarding schools, religious immersion, depopulation due to disease, and most recently, the influence of American culture. According to Pierre and other Salish speakers at the conference, Salish speaking tribes have struggled to preserve their ancestral language.

Today, there is an estimated 200 fluent Salish speakers nationwide, most over the age of 70. Fairing these bleak statistics, many tribes have created educational opportunities in an effort to revitalize the Salish language.

Pierre is a language specialist at the Nk’wusm Salish Language Institute on the Flathead Reservation, where there are less than 50 fluent Salish speakers, most 75 or older. Pierre spends each weekday teaching children the language and has been a major contributor to the 2011 Salish Dictionary “Selis Nyo?nuntn: Medicine for the Salish Language.” He was one of seven recipients to the Language Trailblazer Award.

Learning the language

From teachers to students, saving the Salish language seems to be a daunting task. Co-founder of the Celebrating Salish Conference, Christopher Parkin, works to offer support to individuals like Pierre, who are dedicated to revitalization efforts.

“Not only is there an urgency because it is diminishing, but Salish is a very difficult language to learn phonetically,” he said. “So we really wanted this conference to celebrate the work going into its revitalization.”

With pale skin, and light brown hair, Parkin, 40, isn’t the typical Salish speaker.

“About 10 years ago, the last speaker in my wife’s family, Joe Barr, passed away,” he recalled. “I was a high school Spanish teacher at the time and my wife, LaRae Wiley, kind of took it in her heart to learn the language. She is from the Colville tribe.”

Parkin shifted anxiously, distracted by the hectic pace of conference going on around him.

“Our youngest child headed to college around that time and a Salish elder said ‘If you’re serious about learning the language come live with me.’ So in 2005, we sold our house in the states and moved to Canada. For 18 months, we lived with an elder in the lower Chinook Reserve,” he said.

It was then, Parkin said, he began creating Salish language workbooks for he and his wife to use as a tool to expand their understanding of the language. With the help of many contributors, Parkin’s lesson books eventually developed into a full curriculum.

According to Parkin, there are three things one must do in order to learn a new language: 1. Study “the heck out of” it, 2. Be in an immersion setting with other speakers, and 3. Abandon the use of English words “completely.”

Parkin is self-employed, developing Native American Language Curriculum with Salish speaking tribes. He and his wife are also working with the Salish School of Spokane, which is an immersion school serving students from two to five years old.

“If a 40-year-old white guy can learn Salish, anyone can do it. Incorporate one word at a time and give praise to those trying. The same way you’d give praise to a toddler learning English,” Parkin said.

While past generations have played a vital role in preserving the Salish language, Perkins said its future existence lies in a new generation of potential speakers.

The new voice

Vance HomeGun, 17, may be one of the keys to that future. He was the youngest speaker invited to host a workshop as the conference. Along with friends, HomeGun helped create “Strong Young People,” a youth program that will teach its members aspects of tribal culture including hide tanning, picking camas, and drying meat.

“We’re going to be doing everything ourselves,” he explained. “If we need help we’ll ask but we really want to show people we can do it.”

The descendent of two historically rival tribes, the Salish and Blackfeet Nations, HomeGun developed an early appreciation for his identity.

“I don’t like the words ‘pride’ or ‘proud,’” he said. “Like when people say ‘I’m proud to be Indian.’ For me, I change that word to ‘thankful.’ I’m thankful to be Indian. That’s why I learn our ways.”

When he isn’t planning a youth program or attending his senior year of high school, HomeGun teaches Salish language classes in the St. Ignatius Schools in Montana.

“I always told myself that if I were a teacher, I would be the ‘cool’ teacher,” he said. “I’m living the dream. When my students get the feeling of knowing who they are through the language, it lights the spark and drives them to learn more.”

An uncommonly young Salish speaker, HomeGun’s understanding of the language has developed from his own initiative. Sacrificing his summer vacation to attend Salish language classes, Home Gun’s inspiration stemmed from hearing family members speak as a young child.

“I’m carrying on the voice of Indian people that was here for thousands of years,” said HomeGun. “We need to learn to speak ourselves, because no one else is going to do it for us. Once its gone it’s gone.”


Alyssa Nenemay is a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe.

Continue reading »