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    Preserving the Lushootseed language for the next generation

    Once spoken by thousands of Coast Salish people in this area, Lushootseed was almost lost. Now the battle to save and revive the language is making progress.
    Translation:  May we continue speaking Lushootseed for a long time, as did our ancestors, with a good mind.

    Translation: May we continue speaking Lushootseed for a long time, as did our ancestors, with a good mind. Lushootseed Research

    The notion that we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but rather, we borrow it from our children, has become a cliché of the environmental movement. But could the same thing be true of a language?

    Lushootseed tribal language teachers, students, and advocates from around Puget Sound gathered at a conference on Saturday (May 1) to celebrate the rich cultural inheritance of their Puget Salish language, but also to assess the language's chances of survival in the 21st century. The conference, hosted by Seattle University, was guided by the idea that today's Lushootseed speakers are taking care of the language for the next generation.

    Once spoken by thousands of Coast Salish people in Washington state, Lushootseed's territory extends from north of present-day Mount Vernon to south of Olympia. The northern dialect is spoken by members of the Upper Skagit, Sauk Suiattle, Swinomish, Stillaguamish, Tulalip, and Snoqualmie tribes. The southern dialect, also called Whulshootseed or Twulshootseed, is spoken by members of the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Suquamish, Duwamish, Nisqually, and Squaxin Island tribes. Linguists classify the language as part of the Salishan family, which includes Native languages spoken in parts of Washington, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.

    Today, few elders remain who learned Lushootseed as a first language. Tribes are working hard to make sure that the language survives, and the next few years will be critical if the language is to be revitalized to the point that children become and remain fluent speakers.

    Saturday's Lushootseed conference offered a forum for teachers and students to talk about how they can share resources, from curriculum to computer programs, and what strategies can best shore up the vulnerable language.

    But how did Lushootseed get to the point where it might be considered endangered?

    For decades, federal Indian policy, which aimed at forced assimilation, required children to be removed from their homes and reservation communities, and enrolled in boarding schools, where many were punished or beaten for speaking their Native languages. As a result, generations of Native people either never learned their language, or lost their fluency in it, and many links to traditional culture were broken.

    We almost lost the language, explains Jill K. La Pointe, director of the nonprofit organization Lushootseed Research, which organized the Lushootseed Conference at Seattle University. Fortunately, efforts began many years ago to record and preserve Lushootseed, and that documentation is invaluable for today's language learners.

    Recent decades have seen a cultural resurgence in Puget Sound tribal communities, including carving, weaving, canoe making, and efforts to revitalize Lushootseed. New tribal museums and long houses have been constructed, and events such as the annual Canoe Journey involve hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators.

    Lushootseed Research was founded in 1983 by La Pointe’s grandmother, the revered Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert (1918 – 2008). Hilbert made it her life's work to preserve Lushootseed, telling stories, teaching the language at the University of Washington, and lecturing broadly about traditional culture. Hilbert was recognized as a Washington State Living Treasure in 1989, and received numerous awards for her efforts to preserve Lushootseed, including an honorary doctorate from Seattle University and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994.

    Hilbert's passing in 2008 was a tremendous loss for the Native community. Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, notes that almost every speaker of the Lushootseed language today learned it from Hilbert, or from someone who was taught by Hilbert.

    Lushootseed language classes are being taught today in many tribal communities, and hard-won legislative victories have created more opportunities for language instruction in public school settings. More than a decade ago, high school graduation requirements were amended to allow instruction in Native languages to count toward those requirements.

    Lushootseed is becoming a little bit more visible and familiar to the general public, in spite of its complex orthography reflecting sounds, which are unfamiliar to English-language speakers. The Seattle Art Museum mounted a major Coast Salish exhibit in 2008 called S’abadeb, which means gifts in Lushootseed.

    In 2007, Washington state amended its teacher certification process to permit tribal communities to certify language teachers, citing the federal Native American Languages Act (PL 101-477) in acknowledging that "the traditional languages of Native Americans are an integral part of their cultures and identities and form the basic medium for the transmission, and thus survival, of Native American cultures, literatures, histories, religions, political institutions, and values."

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    Posted Thu, May 6, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is a nice summary of an effort that is essential to the maintenance of a vital Native culture. What is happening with Lushootseed is of course being repeated with other key languages as well. Instead of trying to retain every local dialect, efforts consolidate on preserving the strongest strain and assume that the weaker variants will die off. This is what also has been occurring, for example, in southern British Columbia with the various Fraser River Salish languages. Energy has focused on maintaining a group of speakers of a more generic Halkomelem rather sustaining each local dialect.

    Taylor alludes to the cultural importance of this effort but its critical role needs to be stated more strongly. Quite simply, the basic concepts of the Native culture are embedded in the language and can only be expressed in English to a limited and approximate degree. So when the language is lost, despite the retention of outward symbolic trappings, the ability to think in the way that the ancestors did largely disappears as well. And let's be clear about this -- this preservation effort is important to non-Natives too. As the delusional and shallow quality of contemporary commercial culture becomes ever more apparent, we all will need to discover avenues for connecting to deeper values that intrinsically relate to the natural world we now so awkwardly inhabit. The Native languages are one such avenue.

    Last year I had the opportunity to observe the power of Native languages first-hand. Each summer most of the functioning Native groups along the Washington and BC coasts gather together at a Tribal Canoe Journey conclave hosted by one of the tribes or bands. In 2009 it was hosted by the Suquamish Tribe; this summer it will be hosted at Neah Bay by the Makahs. The party begins when perhaps a hundred carved cedar war canoes converge from all directions on the host site and, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, request permission to land. Then large encampments are set up and feasting and story-telling follows for the better part of a week. The explicit purpose of the Tribal Canoe Journey is to offer a vehicle for integrating Native youth into the traditions of the culture, and restrictions against alcohol and drug use are rigorously enforced.

    It was a heterogeneous gathering. Some canoes arrived from nearby, having rowed a day or less through the sheltered waters of Puget Sound. Others came from as far away as the northwest coast of Vancouver Island and had to paddle a week or more, crossing open stretches of Pacific Ocean in the process. The local groups ended to be more urbanized; the distant ones more culturally isolated.

    Since the newly-constructed Suquamish House of Living Culture is not far from where we live, I was able to attend the presentations of the guest groups on most evenings and some afternoons. Each group danced and sang its local songs and gave thanks and offered gifts to the host Tribe. Each presentation usually lasted a number of hours.

    The sequence of appearance was that those who had paddled furthest were invited to present first. So that meant that the bands from the north end of Vancouver Island led off. These folks not only have not lost their languages but continue to speak them on a daily basis. Their songs had a dazzling power and coherence to them that impressive to behold. But as the presentations unfolded and moved ever closer to urban centers, the intensity of power markedly decreased. At the weaker end of the continuum were groups no longer possessing any language or even songs of their own, performing by rote regional songs learned from books and tapes.

    So that is what language preservation is really about.


    Posted Thu, May 6, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    These efforts are much-needed and praiseworthy. Still, I find it unfortunate that we speak of "language preservation" instead of "language continuation"! The Dx?l?šúcid-speaking community is fortunate to have had so much effort already put into preservation, both in terms of linguistic analysis and description (everything from dictionaries to grammars and a [sadly, cumbersome] writing system) and in terms of voice recordings and transcriptions of oral literature, mythology, history, culture, and stories. That means that if Dx?l?šúcid does out as a native language, it can be revived or at least studied the way dead languages are (e.g. Latin, Sanskrit, etc.).

    In terms of true language *continuation,* however, what Dx?l?šúcid really needs is new native speakers. The only way to produce true native speakers is for children to grow up with Dx?l?šúcid as their primary if not sole language before puberty. There is simply no other way. That is why the Lushootseed preschool immersion program is of critical (critical!) importance. Also good would be if native speaker elders who are able provided many hours of child care every week speaking only Dx?l?šúcid to babies, toddlers, and grade-schoolers as well. But with only 200 aging native speaker elders left, this is becoming less and less possible.

    We know from examples like Hebrew or Manx that a language that dies out (i.e. has no native speakers left) if well preserved/documented can be revived and become a native language again, though in a slightly different form. But for Dx?l?šúcid this would be the second-best option. I hope and pray enough parents see fit and can find the means to have their children take part in such programs and be raised in a Dx?l?šúcid-speaking environment.


    Posted Thu, May 6, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    Teaching young children Lushootseed alongside English is indeed mandatory if the language is to survive. However, having them grow up with it as their only language before puberty would put them at a disadvantage in this country. Why not raise them bilingual? Frankly, this is what should be happening in all schools (though with Spanish, Mandarin, etc. in place of Lushootseed). If we're going to chuck language instruction (not linguistics, not yet, anyway) at the higher levels of education, we can make up for it by immersing children when they're young.

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