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Salish conference celebrates language revitalization

By Alyssa Nenemay

Although she left before the awards were given out, Francis Vanderburg was recognized for her years’ of sharing her knowledge of the Salish language and culture. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Although she left before the awards were given out, Francis Vanderburg was recognized for her years’ of sharing her knowledge of the Salish language and culture. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

SPOKANE, WA — Time is running short as tribal nations throughout the U.S. fight to salvage what remains of their Indigenous language and culture. From executive orders and abuse, to massacres and boarding schools, what do you do when your way of life struggles through relentless attack?

The Kalispel tribe of Usk, Washington has chosen to focus on the silver lining by hosting its fourth annual Celebrating Salish Conference. The three-day event honors and encourages the tireless work of revitalizing the Salish language.

As the conference was brought to a close, The Language Hero Awards were gifted to elders and instructors who were nominated for their work in preservation the Salish language and culture. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) As the conference was brought to a close, The Language Hero Awards were gifted to elders and instructors who were nominated for their work in preservation the Salish language and culture. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

“Celebrations are fun, alive, and people always feel good at them. That’s what our language should be like. Learning is possible and definitely fun. In the past, we all gathered together to celebrate survival, babies being born, etc. Might as well celebrate language too,” said JR. Bluff, Conference co-founder and Assistant Director for the Kalispel Culture Program.

Local drum group Yamncut performed during the conference’ powwow. The groups’ drum featured artwork by the late George Flett. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Local drum group Yamncut performed during the conference’ powwow. The groups’ drum featured artwork by the late George Flett. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

Nestled in the massive Northern Quest Resort and Casino, members of tribal nations throughout the Northwest and Canada gathered to network and share their techniques in reviving the language. “(The Conference) is a gathering of common people who want language in their lives. I feel that they all believe it can happen and they know how to do it. Success will happen from us doing it and helping each other along,” said Bluff.

Local elder Pat Pierre was recognized during the powwow for his years of teaching the Salish language. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Local elder Pat Pierre was recognized during the powwow for his years of teaching the Salish language. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

The conference hosted over 40 workshops, providing attendees insight into immersion teaching techniques, language software, and curriculum. The event also featured keynote presentations from Dr. Bill Cohen of the Okanagan Band who specializes in Indigenous pedagogy – the art and science of teaching - and Native comedian Mitch Factor of the Seminole/Menominee nations.

Aside from the workshops, the conference is gaining recognition for its growing powwow, karaoke contest, and awards/recognitions. The Karaoke contest challenges participants to translate popular music in the Salish language. This year’s winner CeCe Curtis Cook performed a Salish version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which was complete with zombie dancers and a shimmering hand glove.

Nkwusm students participated in the Youth Workshop, which taught children to perform and act on stage. The group performed a play with Salish language dialogue. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Nkwusm students participated in the Youth Workshop, which taught children to perform and act on stage. The group performed a play with Salish language dialogue. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

Amidst the many nations in attendance, residents of the Flathead Reservation participated in the festivities. Local drum group Yamncut performed during the powwow using a drum that had been painted by renowned tribal artist the late George Flett, and elder Pat Pierre was recognized for his many years of teaching.

JR. Bluff is becoming an annual act during the conference’ Karaoke contest. Bluff is a conference co-founder and assistant director for the Kalispel Cultural Program. He performed “I Feel Good” by James Brown. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) JR. Bluff is becoming an annual act during the conference’ Karaoke contest. Bluff is a conference co-founder and assistant director for the Kalispel Cultural Program. He performed “I Feel Good” by James Brown. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

“The younger people are learning. They’re working to learn more and I think it’s really good. We need to have a lot more of that. More people need to gain interest in what they can do to bring back our language and the ways of our people. This is our identity. We can never lose who we are,” said Pierre.

Members of the Flathead Reservation were also nominated for the Language Hero Awards, which finalized the event. “Only through the dedication of our Elders and teachers have our languages survived to the present day. We need to recognize and thank all those, past and present who have worked to sustain our Salish languages so that they can be passed on to our future generations,” said the Salish Language Hero Awards itinerary.

Shonto Pete of the Flathead Reservation traveled to the powwow to sell merchandise. The conference provided a space for venders from all over to display their goods. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Shonto Pete of the Flathead Reservation traveled to the powwow to sell merchandise. The conference provided a space for venders from all over to display their goods. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

Winners included Falicite McDonald, who was nominated by Tony Incashola and Vance Home Gun, Shirley McDonald-Trahan, who was nominated by Jennifer Friedlander-Trahan, and Francis Vanderburg, who was nominated by Diane “Weezee” Cote.

Shirley McDonald-Trahan, Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee language specialist, offered advice to those learning their language and culture: “If you want something, work for it. Don’t give up. Keep going. It may not come right away but keep going, one day it will happen. I would like to thank my ancestors and my family for the gift of our language and culture. I would also like to thank my children and extended family for encouraging me.”

While he wasn’t the night’s winner, Nkwusm instructor Jesse Nenemay took an opportunity to perform during the conference’ Karaoke contest. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) While he wasn’t the night’s winner, Nkwusm instructor Jesse Nenemay took an opportunity to perform during the conference’ Karaoke contest. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

As another encouraging Celebrating Salish Conference was put to rest, coordinator JR Bluff said each year is unique. “There was an increased energy and an increased feeling that our language will return to our lives. This year the crowd’s energy seemed to reflect that. You heard a lot of language in the crowd and it wasn’t all coming from the elders. It was coming from everybody. We all are starting to talk more and more,” he said.

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