Monday, May 16, 2011


Last Wednesday, I made arrangements for a colleague to cover my classroom while I drove north to Canada to visit the "language house" on the Chopaka Indian Reserve in southern British Columbia. My friend Shelly invited me some time ago to experience their language revitalization program, but I never made the trip until last week. My family is starting a similar language program on the Spokane Reservation, so now seemed like the perfect time to learn from their work and to compare.

The landscape near Chopaka is breathtaking. The dry, sage-covered hills of the eastern plateau are suddenly met by the soaring, snow-capped mountain peaks of the Cascade range.  

The entrance to the Chopaka Indian Reserve is less than five miles from the border where a one-lane bridge crosses the river from the highway.

A rattlesnake greeted me on Chopaka Road. When I stopped the car, we exchanged looks for a few moments. Then the snake rattled a few times and slithered into the grass. Beautiful!

When I arrived, I found the language students in the garden.

Samtic'e is one of the local elders. She made me feel right at home when she shook my hand and greeted me in her language, "way', way'." Without missing a beat she pointed to a row of tomato plants and said, "You can put those ones in the ground right there." I smiled and went right to work. I love that Samtic'e has that old way about her where she can put me work as my elders once did.

The language house at Chopaka is a dynamic program that uses immersion as one of its primary teaching methods. The students make a commitment to speak only Salish for most of each instructional day. Immersion accelerates learning more than any other method I know.

The immersion portion of my visit presented some interesting challenges. I read once that the Okanogan language is about 50% similar to the Spokane language, which means that we understood one another about half the time. Some of their words are identical, but others are completely different.

After working in the garden, we continued working in the language lessons. On the day that I visited, we read traditional stories in the language and then asked one another pre-scripted questions about the text. Even though our languages are somewhat different, I learned a lot.

Mastering the Salish language requires many years of hard work, and yet my friends at the language house are among the few making it happen. Someday they will be the elders and all the people will look to them for answers regarding history, language, and cultural knowledge.

The language house is surrounded by flocks of blue jays who have taken up residence nearby. They squawked constantly during my visit to Chopaka. 

After the Salish lesson, we had the chance to visit some cultural sites on the reserve. On the drive, rain and gale force winds slammed the valley. The harsh weather combined with the steep mountains created a spectacular backdrop for the end of our day.

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