Sophie Mays asks Michael, one of two students in her classroom today at the Salish immersion school in Arlee, how old he is. It’s an old trick anyone might use to get a young child to count out loud. She asks twice, in Salish because she expects an answer in Salish, and in English for the benefit of visitors.
Michael doesn’t raise his head from the scissors, bottle of glue and pile of colored paper on the table in front of him, raising one hand over his head instead. He extends four fingers into the air but otherwise remains focused on his work.
This doesn’t satisfy Mays, of course, and she asks Michael again, in Salish, how old he is. This time, he responds with “nkwu” before stalling out. She prompts him with “esél” and “cel~e” and he repeats after her number for number until they reach four, which is “mús.”
Next Mays asks Violet, Michael’s older sister, how old she is. In a display that demonstrates either better language skills, the simple joy of a public performance, or both, Violet unleashes a burst of words unintelligible to visitors that concludes with “cí.l,” which is, naturally, the Salish word for five.
Mays, who is probably the youngest native speaker of Salish at age 49, only has two students this mid-December morning. Some days a few more drop in, but not many parents have taken advantage of the school since its sponsoring organization Nkwusm opened the classroom doors in late October. In fact, it hasn’t yet collected the $350 monthly tuition charge from anyone.
The school may be small and completely dependent on financial support from the tribe, says director Tachini Pete, but when Nkwusm’s four-person staff took over an old HeadStart classroom next to the Lucky Lanes Casino in the Arlee bowling alley, it represented an important step toward preserving the Salish language.
Tachini holds degrees in elementary education and bilingual education and was involved in a similar project several years ago, which failed. But the 31-year-old who literally wrote the Salish dictionary has since achieved an unprecedented level of fluency for a non-native speaker and renewed his commitment to establishing a Salish immersion program.
“Basically, I lived with the language,” Tachini says. “At home, I put labels on everything. I read every work, every dissertation done on the language and I learned the grammar structure. And I spent time with the elders.”
Tachini says his work is motivated by two reasons. The first is personal. When he visited the Navajo Reservation as a child—his father is Navajo—he felt unable to connect with friends and relatives because the Navajo language was used so widely there and he spoke only English.
“I always felt I was on the outside,” Tachini says. “Now I have kids and I want to pass the language along.”
The other reason is social. Tachini estimates that there are only 80 native speakers of Salish alive, and that the majority of these are over 70 years old. He says this puts the language and its various dialects seriously at risk, because these people are more than living vocabulary lists.
“The only way we can keep the language alive is to create a new generation of speakers,” Tachini says. “Salish holds all the knowledge of our ancestors, the way they viewed the world. If the language goes, so will that unique view. Keeping the language will empower the people to be more independent from the U.S. and give them and the tribe more self-esteem. There is also a fear that without the language, the government will say we’re not Indians anymore.”
That fear is not baseless. Vernon Finley, who teaches linguistics at the Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, and who is also the language curriculum director for the Kootenai Cultural Committee, credits federal Indian policy dating back to the Dawes Act in the 19th century for the decline in Native languages.
Finley says boarding schools that separated Indian children from their families and punished them for speaking their Native languages were most responsible for the missing generation of native speakers.
“The intent was to take children away from the culture and language and assimilate them in American society,” Finley says. “There were some children and some parents, not many, who were strongly enough opposed to that whole idea that they didn’t go. But the government would punish them by withholding rations. That Mays and her family opposed this is really remarkable because they were under harsh scrutiny by tribal members as well.”
Asked why it’s important to preserve Native languages like Salish, and whether he thinks programs like Nkwusm will be successful, Finley refers to a linguistic analogy in the Kootenai language. The word “upxa,” for instance, can be cataloged in a dictionary, but its real meaning needs to be learned and practiced in a non-English context.
“In our English-speaking minds it’s to know, to understand, or to see,” Finley says. “But it’s not quite any one of those or all of them. There’s always a spiritual quality to it. If you think about seeing something, understanding something, knowing something, then you’re starting to get an idea of what ‘upxa’ might be.”
After the counting demonstration, Violet and Michael return to their typical pre-school and kindergarten activities. Then Mays, who alternates story-telling activities and language drills with free time and recess, notices that one of Michael’s shoes is untied. She reaches for him and says, “Acint an qesin.”
Michael shakes his head and tries to dodge her hands. When she captures him, he squirms in her grasp. He may not be able to count to four in Salish yet, but he knows what Mays means when she speaks. Then he gives in, and she reaches down to tie the laces of his Spiderman tennis shoe.