A loss for words

Montana tribes have been fighting for over a decade to save their Native languages, but time is not on their side.



Stephen Small Salmon’s voice echoes through the halls of the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute in Arlee, his words drifting forth in something between song and a rhythmic chant. A cluster of preschool-age kids sings in unison before moving on to recite the days of the week. The classroom looks indistinguishable from any other—right down to the carpet squares the children sit on—until you examine the letters and words on every piece of teaching material. Following Small Salmon’s morning lesson requires only the most basic understanding of the Salish language. Yet only a few dozen people on the Flathead Indian Reservation boast even that level of comprehension.

Small Salmon runs through the alphabet with the kids before wrapping up with what he calls the dance song. “That means we’re going home,” he explains, transitioning into English for the first time in about half an hour. He seems energetic and spry for 74, and he peppers his speech with a word or two of his people’s tongue. As one of Nkwusm’s resident elders, Small Salmon grew up talking Salish. His uncle, Pete Beaver Head, once told him to “hold onto it,” and Small Salmon heeded the advice through years of government boarding school. There aren’t many others left these days who did.

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“Our language was losing it, you know,” Small Salmon says. “Now we got to teach those little kids to talk Indian to save our language, our reservation.”

Down the hall from Small Salmon’s preschool class, 85-year-old Pat Pierre instructs the next age group in more advanced lessons like vocabulary and sentence structure. When Pierre first started teaching at Nkwusm 12 years ago, children on the reservation were unfamiliar with the language. They knew none of the greetings, Pierre says, none of the traditional prayers. “They didn’t even know their names,” he recalls.

For Pierre and the rest of the Nkwusm staff, the past 12 years have been a race against time. Despite the school’s efforts to foster a new generation of fluent speakers, progress hasn’t kept pace with the passing of Salish elders. When Nkwusm was founded in 2002, there were only an estimated 90 fluent Salish speakers in the Flathead. Estimates from the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee place that population around 30 today.

Jesse Nenemay, 39, is one of the few younger tribal members to join the ranks of well-versed speakers in recent years. He first started picking up Salish when he was 18, studied for years under elders like Pierre, and has now been teaching at Nkwusm for two years. Four other adult students at the school have managed to attain a fairly good command of the language in only a year. As a group they spend several hours each day with Small Salmon just sitting back and conversing to the best of their abilities. They’ve made great strides in a short time, Small Salmon says. He had his doubts at first, “but there they are, talking Indian. That’s a miracle for me.” Still, the clock is ticking, and some on the reservation have begun to look for new approaches to revitalizing the language.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Salish elder Pat Pierre, 85, teaches at the Nkwusm immersion school.

In St. Ignatius, Nkwusm cofounder Chaney Bell, who left the school last year to take a new position as the culture committee’s language coordinator, is trying to create eight more speakers in fast order. Five have been funded by grant money from a $2 million pilot program created by the Montana Legislature last spring. Two more were drawn to the group through tribal grants. Bell’s wife, a teacher at Salish Kootenai College, is participating as a volunteer. Separate from Nkwusm’s efforts, they’ve met several days a week since late December in a roundtable setting to learn and exercise their language skills. The program only has funding through September, but Bell’s hope is that these pupils will become fluent enough to serve as future teachers and take the language home with them, nurturing it in a family setting.

“The way it’s really going to come back is not through our immersion schools and not through our colleges,” Bell says. “It’s going to come back in our homes, through our children. Parents have to have it in their heart and they have to pass it on to their kids and bring it back to life.”

Nenemay notes an increasing interest among Salish members in learning their ancestral language. It’s becoming a “cool thing to do,” he says. His wife is among Bell’s group in St. Ignatius, and they’ve raised their 4-year-old son to speak Salish as well. The revitalization effort isn’t just about pulling a language back from the brink, Nenemay says, but about understanding the identity and worldview that were traditionally passed down through those words.

“You’re always going to want that part of you,” he says. “That’s the driving force in most people, I think. Just getting to the bottom of who they are.”

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