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News / Northwest

‘Our language identifies who we are’: Determined to preserve the Salish language, the Spokane Tribe is turning study into a full-time job

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: November 12, 2023, 5:36am

WELLPINIT — Marsha Wynecoop was 7 years old when she heard the most beautiful sound. Nestled between her grandparents, she listened uncomprehendingly to the two exchange words in Spokane Salish, the dialect spoken fluently by hundreds of Spokane tribal members at the time.

Though prolific among tribal elders like Wynecoop’s grandparents, fluency in Spokane Salish has faded.

Two of the last living fluent elders in the tribe, Orten Ford, born 1943, and Pat Moses, 1946, have watched Salish wane from regular use in their households, on schoolyards and at tribal celebrations, and with it the loss of cultural connection in generations of nonspeakers.

“We didn’t lose the language then,” Ford said. “Then the elders started falling asleep in death.”

In an effort to resuscitate the endangered language specific to the Spokane people, Salish teacher Sulustu founded nonprofit Spokane Language House and in October embarked on the first classes in a two-year immersion program that resembles a full-time job for 17 students determined to reclaim their language.

While it’s not known exactly how many fluent speakers remain, Sulustu, whose English name is Barry Moses, estimates there are fewer than five enrolled Spokane members who fluently speak the Spokane dialect.

“I’m glad that it’s going to wake up,” Ford said.

The endeavor is a collective effort on the part of tribal government, elders, the broader community and other area tribes in solidarity.

Funded by the tribe and with full support from tribal council, the pilot program cost $2 million over the course of two years of commitment to classes and community outreach, 100 hours of which are included in the student employees’ contracts.

The students are technically employees of the tribe’s language and culture department, where Wynecoop has worked as program director for 25 years. They’re paid $25 hourly for their undertaking: 40 hours a week of Salish instruction, immersion and field trips. Since they’re paid to learn, students can dedicate the time and energy of a full-time job into their studies, ensuring language preservation is a priority.

“It’s taking care of those basic needs so then they’re able to focus on the language for us,” said tribal council member Monica Tonasket. “That was really important to us.”

‘It reaches your heart’

Participants aren’t just seeking to preserve ancestral verb conjugations and word pronunciations, but their way of life embedded in the language itself.

“We’re going to be able to bring our culture and our lifestyles back because our language identifies who we are,” former council member Carol Evans said. “It identifies what a caring people we are: how we love the land, we love the water, we love the air, the animals and people, one another. The language reflects all of that, and so it’s important. It’s critical.”

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The direct translation for the common Salish greeting, stem̓ a spuʔús?, is “How is your heart?” Rather than a goodbye, Salish speakers part ways with n̓em heł wičtmn, meaning, “I’ll see you again.” A Salish farewell to a deceased loved one is n̓em eł wičtwéxʷ, a sentiment meaning, “We’ll see each other again.”

“It reaches your heart better,” Ford said.

Ford recalled her upbringing, tenderly raised by grandparents and elders with family using Salish in her home. Moses said Salish was prolific at powwows, stick games and other gatherings. Hearing fables with recurring characters like Coyote and Fox taught children morals, made especially pertinent when told in their original Salish tongue. The language instills in its speakers a veneration for elders and Spokane identity.

“It’s opening the door to feel a lot of pride in who you are, and your people, relatives and ancestors; that’s what it’s all about — respecting our elders who have passed on,” Pat Moses said. “I think they’re upstairs in heaven, looking down on us happy that we’re still trying to retain the language, not let it go. I’m happy to see the end of the story.”

Sulustu draws connections between language distinction and tribal sovereignty. Unique cultural practices that distinguish tribal identity from broader American politics justify independence, including reservation land rights. As evident from attempted assimilation in Indian boarding schools, language use is foremost among these practices.

“Some of our elders have said that if the day ever comes that we don’t speak our language anymore, we don’t practice our culture, we don’t use our medicines, we don’t remember our ceremonies, at some point, people might look at us and say, ‘Well, why do they get all this extra stuff? They’re just like us,'” Sulustu said.

In an era defined by rising global temperatures, the resulting ecological devastation, war and political divisiveness, Sulustu argues the Indigenous voice is especially pertinent. In its emphasis on interactions with nature, speaking Salish stimulates a shift in thinking that reprioritizes a sustainable focus on resource consumption and collectivism.

“The language contains the vocabulary of relatedness to the natural world and to each other. So as we get into that groove, I think psychologically we become much stronger, much healthier people, and can interact with the wider community in a more wholesome way,” Sulustu said. “Hopefully, if we can do this on a global scale — not just here but everywhere — we can avert catastrophe. We’re at the edge.”

Resisting assimilation

The loss of the Salish language is attributed to forced assimilation in Indian boarding schools that left a traumatic legacy still felt today.

Indian boarding schools were prevalent across the United States and Canada from the 1800s to the 1970s. In these schools, Indigenous children were forced to cut their hair and prohibited from practicing their culture in favor of assimilating into the dominant white society. In the name of “killing the Indian, saving the man,” schools enforced a militantly strict adherence to English.

“It all comes from the boarding school mentality, trying to assimilate into American culture,” Pat Moses said. “Culture makes us who we are — language, digging camas, the sweat lodge, everything our grandparents did makes us a unique people. If we didn’t have that, we’d be like everybody else in America.”

The boarding schools victimized generations of Salish speakers, who then didn’t impart the language to their children. Ford learned Salish from her T’upe, her maternal great-grandmother, whom she suspects avoided the schools due to her distinct red hair and blue eyes passed down from her Irish father.

Language as a family tree

This program is not the first to revitalize Spokane Salish and other dialects through immersive education.

The tribe’s language and culture department offers classes that teach introductory Level 1 and intermediate Level 2 Salish. Eleven of the participants in the pilot program learned through the department, and many eventually worked as Salish teachers. The department also offers immersion classes for kids 3-8.

Other area programs include the Salish School of Spokane, which Sulustu credited for creating the blueprints for his immersion program and similar ones across Eastern Washington. That school immerses participants in Colville Salish, a dialect Sulustu estimates shares about 50% similarities with Spokane Salish.

The Salish School of Spokane offers myriad programming for Salish education and immersion, including settings for kids ages 3-5 and elementary school classes.

For their children’s enrollment, adults are required to complete 60 hours of Salish classes yearly, for which the school offers free night classes. Night classes are for community members and parents, and some are accredited by Spokane Falls Community College. The school also trains future Salish teachers and offers program templates free of charge to other Indigenous communities seeking to revitalize their languages, like Sulustu’s endeavor at the Spokane Language House.

“The Kalispel Tribe and the Salish School of Spokane donated curriculum free of charge, and then we translated that curriculum into the spoken language for use here,” he said.

Sulustu also speaks Kalispel Salish, having previously worked as a curriculum expert for a Kalispel immersion program. The Kalispel dialect shares about 85% similarities with Spokane Salish, he said.

“Sometimes we just kind of shrug,” Sulustu said. “Since we don’t know, I guess in this instance we’ll use the Kalispel word and there’s an 85% chance that it was the same.”

The immersion class Sulustu teaches is for the most advanced speakers, unique in its emphasis on fluency. Those that have reached a high level two were invited to participate in the program, with the intention that after their two years, they’ll become keepers of the language and stories and can reintegrate Salish into the collective.

“Nšiʔšiʔcín is what our elders were. They took care of our stories and our language,” Ford said. “That’s why I was thinking these guys now would be the new nšiʔšiʔcín. Carry it on.”

‘A song of praise, a song of hope’

Resuscitating a fading language is a daunting task for the students, under pressure to become the next keepers of Salish for future generations.

Student r’ʔopi, whose English name is Robert Wynecoop, taught Salish classes at North Central and Rogers High School, and Wellpinit schools. He’s invested to the point of conjugating verbs in his sleep. Despite his past experience as an educator, he feels trepidation that he’ll make mistakes that can’t be corrected by an abundance of fluent speakers before him.

“I’ve never been afraid to speak it,” said r’ʔopi, Marsha Wynecoope’s nephew. “I’ve always been a little bit afraid to misinterpret something or missay something, and somebody else takes that as how it is.”

Ford, employed by the language and culture department, steals away each morning to sit in on the class.

“I need to hear the language,” she said. “I haven’t had anybody to talk to or listen to.”

Students are preserving a line dating back 11,000 years, according to Spokane creation story.

After the Missoula Floods carved out the Inland Northwest’s distinct topography millennia ago, an earthquake rocked the region, as the fable goes. Two survivors managed to flee the destruction by climbing to the top of Mount Spokane. The survivors, a young man and a woman, are the ancestors of the Spokane people. As two of the last fluent speakers, Pat Moses and Ford parallel these two original ancestors, passing the baton to current students and hopefully relayed from them to future generations.

None illustrate the mission quite like student Amelia Mendoza. Like her peers, she brings study materials and snacks to class and dutifully follows Sulustu’s lesson in Salish, but there’s a tag-along in attendance: 4-month-old Jalen Mendoza sleeps soundly in a rocking cradle at her feet. A dedicated pupil, her son never fusses, she said, only coos and babbles throughout instruction. Since her other sons and Jalen’s father know some words in Salish but primarily speak English, Mendoza tries to surround her infant with Salish.

“It really means a lot; it’s something that you can’t even put words to when you can sit there and talk to your kids in your language,” Mendoza said.

“For him, It’d be pretty cool to have his first word be Salish,” Mendoza said. “It’d be really cool if that was his first language. I mean, we can be hopeful.”

Before class began, r’ʔopi scanned the perimeter of the longhouse before class began. He imagined a time when fluent elders, nšiʔšiʔcín in Salish, could fill the room and the void left as that generation passed away. Students now won’t let the language fade with those elders.

“I now understand how our nšiʔšiʔcín, how our first speakers felt when those rows of fluent speakers along these walls in here started to disappear. How much it hurts to want to have someone to speak to, but there’s nobody there. That’s literally how I felt the last few years,” r’ʔopi said. “To be able to come into this group and see we’re not sitting along these walls, we’re sitting up here. I don’t feel alone anymore.”

Sulustu, founder of the Spokane Language House and teacher at the immersion pilot program, isn’t just a Salish speaker. He’s a Salish singer, too. In September, he performed a Salish hymn, Chaconne on č̓ ʔanwí, with the Spokane Symphony at a performance themed “Masterworks 1: A Place Called Home.” Conductor William Harvey arranged an original score in 2017 to reimagine the hymn, brought to the northwest by missionaries in the 1800s and translated to Salish in conversion efforts.

č̓ ʔanwí is a common funeral song; Sulustu has been singing it for over 30 years at funerals. It’s a mournful melody, and he thought of his nšiʔšiʔcín, all those who came before him, as he sang — especially pertinent given his recent endeavor teaching an advanced Salish immersion class seeking to revitalize his endangered ancestral language.

“There were so many elders and speakers and powerful spiritual people who came before me who have sung these hymns and then who have done far more good for the world than I have, and then somehow fate has allowed me to perform this in so many different places,” he said. “And I just always hope and pray that my doing this can somehow be a force for good, to represent my family and my community, my people, my language in a way that would make them proud.”

On stage for his evening performances and against the solemn well of the orchestra, he was overcome with emotion and said to the audience extemporaneously, “From the deepest well of grief is often born our greatest praise.” These words ring especially true for Sulustu. Though he hasn’t been alone in the effort to revitalize Salish, joined by tribal government, the community at large and a small legion of dedicated scholars, it hasn’t been easy. His grief surrounding the fading of his culture’s language and personal hardships is underscored by the hope of a future of Salish fluency for his community.

“There were a number of points in that process that I wanted to give up. It’s too hard. It’s just too painful. The hill is too steep to bring back a dying language. There are lots of times that I wanted to give up there, lots of times that I wept,” he said.

“What I felt happened when I was on that stage was, this was like all of the sadness and all of the tears and all of the ones who we lost along the way, and all of the ones who didn’t live to see this revitalization movement: from that was born a song of praise, a song of hope.”

He’s encouraged by the Spokane tribe’s efforts to preserve and incorporate the language, and by the wider movement of Indigenous communities clinging to their languages and expanding them through immersive educations.

Atrocities of the past that lead to the waning of Indigenous languages can’t be undone, namely Indian boarding schools, he said. However, Indigenous communities can heal through the return to their ancestral knowledge and point of view embedded in Salish.

“Many people are starting to recognize across humanity that we have to bring about healing,” Sulustu said. “I think language revitalization fits somewhere in that sphere and in that realm.”

  • Spokane Falls, Spokane River, City of Spokane: sƛ̓x̣etkʷ. Directly translating to “rapids” or “fast water,” it’s the original Salish name for the Spokane Falls and is sometimes used for the entire Spokane River. Now, speakers use it to refer to the city of Spokane.
  • Little Spokane River: nxʷmnetkʷ. Directly translated, it means “steelhead water/river.”
  • Mt. Spokane: čq̓ʷul̓sm, named after a kind of bark that the Spokane people collected from willows on the mountain.
  • Drumheller Springs Park: scwełxʷ, a word referring to the lodge of a mythical bird.
  • Little Falls: scqescíłn, refers to the eating of the salmon that Spokane people once caught at this location.

Elena Perry’s work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.