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.

Missoula Independent news

“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.

Missoula Independent news
  • 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.”

Lynette Chandler, cofounder and director of the White Clay Immersion School on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, can’t stress enough how critical timing can be for Native language revitalization. In 2001, shortly after obtaining their master’s degrees from Montana State University, Chandler and her husband, Sean, took up the task of saving the A’ani language of the reservation’s Gros Ventre tribe. The language was on the cusp of becoming dormant, Chandler explains. She shies away from using the words dead or extinct, but “we were in the big-time danger zone.”

The two quickly assigned a small group of young tribal members to a master apprenticeship program, partnering them with the seven remaining elders still fluent in A’ani in the hopes of producing a new generation of potential teachers. Chandler felt the clock ticking, and looking back, she’s relieved she acted when she did. “As we predicted back in like 2000, 2001, all of our elders that we went to to learn our language have passed away,” she says. “Every single one of them.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Nkwusm instructors Stephen Small Salmon and Jesse Nenemay have devoted themselves to reviving the Salish language on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Yet in the 12 years since Nwusm opened its doors, the number of fluent speakers has continued to decline.

The same story has played out to varying degrees throughout Indian Country in recent decades. As populations of tribal elders continue to shrink, scores of languages are in danger of disappearing completely—if they haven’t already. Data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, lists nearly 200 known tribal languages native to the United States; 54 are already classified as “extinct.” UNESCO estimates 74 more stand to vanish from use in the next decade. According to the National Congress of American Indians, the number of spoken Native languages could dwindle to 20 by the year 2050 without immediate action.

“This crisis is the result of longstanding federal policies—enacted particularly through government boarding schools—that sought to break the chain of cultural transmission and destroy American Indian and Alaska Native cultures,” the NCAI stated in a 2012 release supporting reauthorization of federal legislation to preserve Native languages.

Congress has heeded the call for help over the years by committing federal funds to prevent loss of heritage and culture in Indian Country. Sen. Jon Tester positioned himself at the center of the latest push in January when he introduced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, a bill aimed at bolstering the efforts of schools like Nkwusm and White Clay through a competitive grant program.

“It’s $5 million, which isn’t a lot of money,” Tester says. “But the truth is it’s a lot more than they’ve got now, and I don’t think schools should make a choice between teaching math and teaching Native languages. This will help give them some flexibility and, I think long-term and short-term, improved quality of life.”

The idea stemmed from Tester’s repeated visits to reservations in Montana, where he says he’s seen firsthand the benefits of “keeping that culture and that identity alive.” Native language instruction has helped accelerate learning and increase self-esteem among students in Indian Country, he adds. The bill itself references reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as tribal, public and private schools indicating that students coming out of language immersion schools have demonstrated higher high school graduation and college attendance rates than their non-immersion peers.

That by-product of Native language revitalization strikes at the heart of one of Tester’s primary goals as the newly minted chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He introduced the immersion school bill largely as a show of support for Native education, which he feels stretches “far, far, far beyond” the classroom.

“Some people will say, ‘Who cares?’ I’ll tell you who cares,” Tester says. “When you have the kind of poverty you’ve got out there and the fact that education will help rise you up in the economic strata, and these languages will not only help preserve identity and preserve culture but also help kids stay in school—this is a win-win deal. Culture’s fluid today, and children need to know where they come from in order to know where they’re going.”

Tester isn’t alone in fighting to help save Montana’s endangered tribal languages. Last year, state Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, a former vice chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, successfully sponsored legislation establishing the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program. The one-time, $2 million allocation is geared toward backing existing language efforts and providing the financial foundation necessary for others to begin. Most of Montana’s tribes have for years hosted language immersion camps, worked to establish language classes in public schools and tribal colleges, and identified language preservation as a long-term priority. And yet UNESCO lists three languages in Montana as definitely endangered and three others—the languages of the Salish, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes—as critically endangered.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jesse Nenemay

“If we don’t preserve what little we have left, we won’t have anything to immerse,” Windy Boy said before the Montana Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee in February 2013.

Chandler is heartened by the political support demonstrated by elected officials like Tester and Windy Boy. She and her husband opened the White Clay Language Immersion School at the Aaniiih Nakoda College in October 2003, and they continue to instruct children grades K-8 entirely in A’ani. Building community support proved difficult at first, particularly the task of convincing tribal members of the value of learning the language. By 2006 the school had attracted 11 students; in 2012, the total was 26. Along with the current immersion school students, Chandler says White Clay’s graduates now constitute the biggest A’ani speaking population left on Fort Belknap.

“They’re a living legacy for our people,” Chandler says. “It’s not something that we’ve created and put on the shelf and may pull down and study. These are actually living, breathing human beings that embody our language and our culture.”

Even after 11 years, however, funding at White Clay is a constant struggle. The school’s graduates have gone on to excel academically in public high school, Chandler says. Three of them have even promised to return as teachers. Tester’s bill could help the effort, provided it passes Congress and White Clay qualifies for and receives one of the competitive grants. But the state’s pilot program funding—which is administered on each reservation by designated tribal advisory boards—hasn’t reached White Clay. “We haven’t seen any impact here at the White Clay Immersion School from any of that funding,” Chandler says. “None whatsoever, which surprised me.”

In fact, the first quarterly report issued for the pilot program by the Montana Department of Commerce in January stated that the pace of language preservation activity on most reservations is a “cause for concern.” Many of the projects are working on the most basic of tasks: Creating language dictionaries, developing websites and scheduling additional immersion camps. The funding for those efforts—roughly $250,000 for each of the state’s eight tribal organizations—is only good through September of this year. Folks like Chandler have struggled for over a decade to build momentum, and while they’ve claimed some victories in the fight for revitalization, time is still a potent enemy.

Last fall, the immersion school community in Montana and beyond lost one of its pioneers. Harvard-educated author, teacher and Blackfeet member Darrell Kipp died in late November at the age of 69, leaving behind a legacy that comes up in nearly every conversation about Native language revitalization. His mark was most notably left in the form of the Piegan Institute in Browning, the state’s oldest immersion program, which he cofounded nearly three decades ago.

“The Piegan Institute was established in 1987 to research, promote and revitalize the Blackfoot language of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana,” says Kipp’s son Darren, a filmmaker who inherited his father’s passion for reviving Blackfeet culture. His father had many mottos, Darren adds, but one that continues to resonate was his desire to bring prestige to his language.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters

“Don’t house it in an old, rundown building,” Darren remembers his father saying. “Don’t put it in an old, forgotten space. Put it in a beautiful building in a beautiful space because it’s your language.”

Under Kipp’s direction, the institute took to collecting, archiving and preserving the Blackfoot language as well as running the private Cuts Wood School. It was largely Kipp who inspired parents like Joycelyn DesRosier to become more involved in educating young tribal members. DesRosier first enrolled her youngest son in Cuts Wood in the mid ’90s, when the school was still requiring parents to attend nightly classes to promote language use in a family setting. Every morning, staff would stop DesRosier at the school’s door, informing her that there was no English allowed inside the building. She promptly volunteered to help, working as a silent teacher for her first year before undertaking basic language instruction. She worked for seven years under a master teacher, building up the pronunciation skills and confidence needed to enter the classroom.

“Darrell Kipp always just told me and reminded me, ‘You don’t need permission to speak our language,’” she says. “‘It’s our language. We own it.’”

DesRosier is now the lead teacher at Cuts Wood. Two of her sons have graduated from the program and one of them, 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jesse DesRosier, is currently taking linguistics and teaching courses at the University of Montana with the goal of returning to Piegan as an instructor. He grew up hearing the language spoken by his adopted grandfather, and feels it would be selfish not to give back to the revitalization effort. That, he says, is the best way to honor Kipp’s legacy.

“He had a very laid-back mentality and a very no-worries attitude,” Jesse says. “It reminds me of a word in our language: ‘matkowakii.’ It’s kind of like the ‘hakuna matata’ of our language. There’s no worries. And I think if I had to describe him in one word, that would be him.”

Kipp’s influence stretches well beyond the borders of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Chandler first met him after obtaining her master’s degree from Montana State University. Devoted to the notion of opening White Clay, she followed Kipp and several other language practitioners to New Zealand to study how the Maori people had developed their own cultural immersion education system. Kipp’s immersion blueprint was inevitably what Chandler turned to as a model for White Clay.

Missoula Independent news
  • Piegan Institute
  • Blackfeet member and Piegan Institute founder Darrell Kipp was hailed by many as a pioneer in Native language preservation. He passed away late last year at age 69.

“Everything I do is kinda modeled after Darrell,” she says. “One of his mottos—he had about 10 of them—was ‘just do it.’ He said, ‘Lynette, you can sit around worrying about funding forever. You can sit around worrying about where your building will be, who will be teaching in it. Just do it. It’s not going to get done. You can plan for five years and then you have five years lost where you didn’t help your language live.’”

Like so many others, Kipp recognized the immediacy facing Native languages across the United States. Swift intervention is frequently cited as the key in making sure the NCAI’s worst-case prediction doesn’t come true over the next few decades. Kipp’s death was a tremendous loss to the revitalization movement—“There will never, ever be another Darrell Kipp,” Chandler says—but ultimately the responsibility will fall to the next generation of fluent speakers. In some cases, it already has.

There’s a word in Blackfoot for Lower Saint Mary Lake just outside Glacier National Park. It’s “pahtoomoh ksikimii,” or “hole at the bottom of the lake,” and for Jesse DesRosier, it says something not only about the lake but about his tribe’s connection to the land. There’s a natural spring under the lake, he explains, and the Blackfoot language reflects that in the same way its rhythm and sounds reflect the country in which DesRosier grew up, and in which his ancestors lived for untold generations.

“This is the language of this part of the country,” DesRosier says. “This flow and this rhythm and this language is what’s been here for thousands of years. This is what’s in the wind, this is what’s in the environment, this is what’s been here longer than any other language. So in order for us to understand our surroundings, why not learn the language of the land?”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Since his parents enrolled him in the Piegan Institute’s immersion program at age 8, DesRosier hasn’t taken much of a break. His mother remembers DesRosier and his brother as young kids coming back from the school and requiring the household to speak nothing but Blackfoot for whole days. The longest he’s been away from fellow speakers was his four-year stint in the Marine Corps, he says. He felt a bit rusty when he returned, but after hearing a few sentences, the language came flooding back to him and “brought my spirit home.”

DesRosier has since dedicated his college education to building the foundation necessary to return to the Blackfeet reservation and pass that identity on to others of his tribe. Their elders are dying, he says, and they don’t have time to sit back and wait. “The urgency is upon us.”

As precarious as the situation was when Kipp first founded the Piegan Institute, the next wave of potential speakers has, for the most part, embraced the revitalization effort. DesRosier now sees Facebook posts and text messages from tribal members written in Blackfoot. The Blackfeet Community College promotes fluency through a language arts degree, and has begun integrating the language into new technologies. Last year, the college developed the first ever Native language app for smartphones, an easy-to-use Blackfoot reference guide geared specifically for a younger generation.

“It’s ironic how the Industrial Revolution was a key factor in breaking Indians down, but now it’s a vehicle to move the language forward,” DesRosier says. “It does ultimately have to be spoken, though, and passed down orally, mouth to ear.”

Up in St. Ignatius, Chaney Bell’s new group of Salish students are all under the age of 50—a critical strategy, Bell says, in making sure fluency doesn’t die along with the tribe’s elders. Several students, like Travis Arlee, have young families who have themselves expressed interest in learning the language. Arlee grew up with a fluent father, but remembers shying away from speaking it himself. When his daughter turned 4, he enrolled her in Nkwusm.

“It really encouraged me to get back into it,” he says. “What we learn here I bring home, and I work with my three kids and my wife.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jesse DesRosier, 25, attended the Cuts Wood School in Browning for most of his childhood. He’s now well-versed in the Blackfoot language, and hopes to return to the reservation to help instruct other future speakers.

The culture committee’s program may only be a few months old, but it’s already gaining ground. Elders like Pat Pierre, Stephen Small Salmon and Felicity McDonald have visited the class regularly to conduct full-on immersion sessions. Students have access to a wealth of educational material—dictionaries, CDs, online resources—that never existed when Bell first gravitated to the language in the ’90s. Compared to the struggles Nkwusm faced for years, Bell feels the adult immersion program has a leg up.

“We didn’t have nothing,” he says. “I remember listening to the same thing every night of a fluent speaker we recorded because I didn’t have anything. We look at it today, people have a lot more opportunity, there’s a lot more exposure, there’s a lot more talk about the importance.”

Most importantly, Bell’s students unanimously agree, they have 20-year-old Vance Home Gun in their fold. Home Gun grew up surrounded by Salish tradition, and already has enough command of the language to converse comfortably with elders. The group teases the soft-spoken young man, referring to him as an elder in his own right and explaining that at tribal events he’s often seen sitting at the center of a much older crowd. Yet they defer to him often, acknowledging that he is wise for his years.

“Vance brings a lot of hope to our fluent speakers,” Bell says. “Vance is already at a level where he can communicate really well with them. It gives them hope that there are people who are learning this and can carry it on.”

Home Gun first developed his passion for preserving the language at age 11, when his aunt took him to a Salish language camp. His efforts since then, teaching at high schools and working with tribal officials, won him recognition last year as the Center for Native American Youth’s Champion of Change. Home Gun says he maintains regular contact with various elders. Recently, he was speaking with Felicity McDonald, an elder now in her early 90s, about the fact that many potential Salish speakers seem to have given up too easily, taking for granted how complex the language truly is. Home Gun, like DesRosier, may offer promise. But he believes the urgency is still there.

“My teachers are pretty much gone,” Home Gun says. “The only one I’ve got left is probably my grandma.”

At Nkwusm, Small Salmon is unsure how many of the preschoolers from his morning lesson will make it through to the eighth grade. Many leave before graduating the program, he says, either to attend public school or to relocate to new towns with parents who get new jobs. Pierre is hopeful that someday, Nkwusm will have the funding and ability to convert a room now used for storage into a high school classroom. Retaining students for four more years could be the next step in building up the ranks of fluent speakers.

For now, Pierre’s vision of a revitalized Salish language rests on a few young shoulders like Nicole Perry, a recent Nkwusm graduate who still visits the school from time to time. She isn’t fluent, but she can hold a conversation with her former teachers in local stores or on the street. She plans to keep learning, to go to college and to study other languages that are in danger of disappearing. She also intends to pass on what she knows to nieces, nephews and any children she might have in the future.

“The language is the glue of a tribe,” Perry says. “If you lose the language, you lose just about everything else.”

Add a comment