More than 100 years ago, the Jesuit missionaries brought Christianity to the Salish-speaking peoples of the Inland Northwest, and as I've mentioned before, the main branch of my family adopted Catholicism as far back as the 1840s. It's a complex and confusing history. On the one hand, the early Jesuit fathers mastered the Salish languages to an amazing degree of fluency. They even published books in the language! But a generation later, Catholic schools were punishing Indian children for speaking anything other than English. What a bizarre irony of history! They meticulously documented the language, only to later encourage its eradication.
The contradiction is unfathomable, but at the end of the day, I really am grateful that the priests wrote about their experience of the Salish language. More than a century later, their writings have both supported and deepened my own learning process.
In 1879, the Missionaries of the Society of Jesus published a compilation of Bible stories written in the Kalispel Language: łu tel kaimintis kolinzuten (From the Writings of the Creator). To my knowledge, they never attempted a complete translation of the Bible into any interior Salish language, but kaimintis kolinzuten is perhaps the most complete Biblical text ever written in a local dialect. It includes all the major stories of the Old Testament, along with a thorough summary of the four Gospels.
Of course, the priests did not have the benefit of our current writing system, sometimes known as the American Phonetic Alphabet or the International Phonetic Alphabet. They invented their own system of writing based upon a simplified version of the Roman letters. Their writing was difficult for me to understand at first, but once I learned a few basic substitutions, I found that it was relatively easy to decipher.
For example, the priests used the letter 'g' to indicate most of the 'x' or 'xʷ' sounds. They also used the letter 'z' to represent the 'c' or the glottalized 'c'.
The following is a sample of the text, followed by a transcription in the current writing system and a tentative translation into English:
T-KOLINZUTEN kólis łu s'chchmáskat, u łu stóligu. U łu stóligu i choólegu ... łu lesshii̓ti sgalgált, zúti: Kskol'li łu spaáka, u kolil łu spaáka ...
t k'ʷul'ncutn k'ʷul'is łuʔ sččmasq't, u łuʔ stulixʷ. u łuʔ stulixʷ i č'uw'leʔxʷ ... łuʔ l' hecšʔiti sx̣lx̣alt, cuti: qs k'ʷul'l'i łuʔ sp̓aʔaq, u k'ʷul'l' łuʔ sp'aʔaq ...
The Creator made the sky and the earth. And the earth was a deserted place ... On the first day he said: Let the light be born (made), and the light was born (made) ...
Of course, it is important to note that a person could not really learn to speak the language using only the Jesuit text. The letters are relatively consistent, but the sounds are not precise. Having said that, the text provides a valuable resource to anyone who already has a solid understanding of the modern writing system. With a few substitutions, I have been able to read and understand the writing and thereby answer a few long-held questions about grammar and sentence structure. And since the Spokane Language is so similar to the Kalispel, these books provide crucial insights into my own understanding of Salish.