Preserving the Lushootseed language for the next generation

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

La Pointe is continuing her grandmother’s work with Lushootseed Research by publishing and distributing Lushootseed language materials, developing new internet-based resources, and sponsoring events like Saturday’s conference to promote information sharing among tribal programs.

Workshops and presentations highlighted archival resources at the University of Washington, language documentation and stabilization programs at the University of Oregon, immersion lessons in teaching about Puget Sound area native plants, and discussions about how participants are using new technologies in teaching.

A tribute to Vi Hilbert and her long-time academic collaborator Dr. Thom Hess (1936 – 2009) captured their dedication to preserving Lushootseed. The two worked tirelessly for decades to transcribe language resources, utilizing a standardized orthography or system of writing using a subset of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and eventually publishing the Lushootseed Dictionary with co-author Dr. Dawn Bates.

A compelling presentation by Tony Johnson, a Chinook tribal member, described the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde’s success in creating a full immersion program for preschool students. Based on successful “languages nests” developed in Maori communities in New Zealand, and in Native Hawaiian communities, the Grand Ronde have established a school environment where Chinuk is spoken all day, every day by both teachers and students, building fluency in kids ages 3-5, and working with elementary age students to retain their language skills as they transition to public schools. This kind of immersion program has also been successful with K-8 students at the Piegan Institute’s Cuts Wood School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.

The immersion program model represents an outstanding opportunity for revitalizing Lushootseed to ensure future generations of fluent speakers, according to Lushootseed speaker Zalmai “Zeke” Zahir, who taught the language for many years, and who published Puget Sound Geography with Vi Hilbert and Dr. Jay Miller in 2001.

Language immersion programs are increasingly being recognized for their positive impacts not just in terms of revitalizing endangered languages. A recent Seattle Times editorial touted increases in general academic achievement among Seattle Public School students participating in immersion programs in languages such as Spanish and Mandarin.

Johnson described Grand Ronde’s Masters and Apprentices Program as another successful model for building language fluency, in which an elder who is a fluent speaker works on an individual basis with a youth or adult language learner, and both are paid for their time commitment. Rather than studying a formal curriculum, teacher and student work together informally, speaking their language in “normal life interactions” like doing chores.

Conference attendees discussed other items on the “wish list” for Lushootseed revitalization, include digitizing reference materials like the Lushootseed Dictionary (this is in the works), creating a mentorship network for language teachers, and re-instating Lushootseed language classes at the University of Washington.

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.

New parks in Seattle and other cities have been given Lushootseed names, reflecting traditional Puget Salish geography such as Herring’s House Park (Tualtwx) on the Duwamish River, or honoring specific individuals such as Cheshiahud, a Duwamish tribal leader for whom a loop trail around Lake Union is named. The Seattle Public Schools’ Huchoosedah Indian Education Program is named for a Lushootseed word that means broad cultural knowledge and knowledge of self. Current advertisements for the Tulalip Resort feature the Lushootseed word for welcome.

Written and spoken Lushootseed can be seen in many publications, interpretive signs, public artworks, documentary films, and other aspects of local heritage. Such creative works share the traditional culture and world view of the First People of Puget Sound with the region’s ever-growing non-native population.

Along with the hundreds of students learning Lushootseed today, La Pointe is working to carry on her grandmother’s legacy by keeping the language alive. Organizing the inaugural Lushootseed Conference was one way to do that. “My grandmother always told us,” La Pointe says, “that our language, Lushootseed, is the most beautiful language, and she wished that some day everyone who lived in Puget Sound would speak it.”

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