Saturday, April 02, 2011

Salish Class

Spokane Salish is considered an "endangered language."

When I was a child, I remember hearing people speak the language in public gatherings or in private homes when the old people got together to visit. By comparison, my exposure to the language was much more frequent than now. But then one by the one, the elders passed away, and only a handful of people continued to speak as they did before.

By my count, perhaps only five or six fluent speakers remain on the Spokane Reservation, and maybe a handful of others with medium to advanced levels of proficiency. In any case, the situation is urgent: we need young people with a strong commitment to learn.

The Spokane Tribal Language Program offers a variety of Salish classes. I'm very thankful for their work, and still we find that many people are unable to access the classes because of scheduling conflicts or other personal factors.

For my part, I also faced a number of internal obstacles. Perhaps I focused too much on the difficulties of gathering a group of committed individuals, or on practical matters like conflicts with my work schedule. Or maybe it's something deeper. Maybe our commitment to the language forces us to face the colonization of the mind caused by the political, cultural, and economic oppression of the dominant society. On some level, our choice to preserve the language is an act of defiance against the forces of assimilation and a refusal to abandon our own cultural identity.

Whatever the obstacles may have been, a small group of family members finally got together and organized an informal Salish class. Our decision is an act of self-empowerment. We finally realized that we can't wait for class times to be convenient or for federal, state, and tribal institutions to support us. No one will give us permission. If we want it, we'll have to do it ourselves.

Most importantly, two of the remaining fluent speakers are close family members. What an opportunity!

We had our first class two weeks ago, starting at 11:00 am and ending at 3:30 pm. We gathered around my aunt's dining room table and picked apart the basics of grammar and pronunciation. We had our second class yesterday.

In two weeks time, some amazing things have started happening. One family member listened to my uncle pray in Salish the other day and said that for the first time in many years, he actually understood part of the message. Some time later, my cousin told me that her children have started calling their great-grandmother to share what they've learned. Our elder was moved by feelings of gratitude and joy to witness her great grandchildren speaking the language.

Good things are happening.


The photograph above shows a Salish worksheet I created about ten years ago based on the "How are you feeling today?" poster by Jim Borgman.

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