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.
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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