Char-Koosta News

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CSKT Language Summit brings together tribes with unified mission

By B.L. Azure
Char-Koosta News

Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre discusses Nkwusm Salish Language Immersion School at the language summit. (B.L. Azure photo) Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre discusses Nkwusm Salish Language Immersion School at the language summit. (B.L. Azure photo)

POLSON — Tribal languages are fast fading with the passing of elderly fluent speakers, consequently that makes salvaging them a very important mission, a mission that many tribes nationwide are pursuing. The tribal language salvation mission is going full speed ahead in Montana among the seven recognized Tribal Nations as well as the unrecognized landless tribes. A big spur in the effort is the Encourage lndian Language Immersion Schools bill, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy (D-SD 16) passed by the Montana Legislature last session. The recent CSKT Language Summit here was in part a result of the Windy Boy bill.

The trial language preservation gathering attracted more than 80 people from all seven Tribal Nations in Montana and the unrecognized landless tribes, and the Kalispell Tribe of Washington.

J.R. Bluff of the Kalispell Tribe of eastern Washington discusses the Salish language program of his tribe. Johnny Arlee of the Flathead Reservation works for the Spokane area tribe’s Salish language program. (B.L. Azure photo) J.R. Bluff of the Kalispell Tribe of eastern Washington discusses the Salish language program of his tribe. Johnny Arlee of the Flathead Reservation works for the Spokane area tribe’s Salish language program. (B.L. Azure photo)

The two-day summit held at Kwataqnuk Resort and Casino, among other things, featured presentations and testimonials from language preservation experts from each of the tribes in attendance.

Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre, a Salish language teacher at Nkwusm Salish Language Immersion School in Arlee, echoed what many of the presenters said. In particular the importance of saving tribal languages because they are links to understanding the past and the present because they paint the complete picture of the history, traditions and spirituality of each tribe. They reveal the realness and uniqueness of being an Indian in America.

“The white man’s language — English — makes us all alike. Back in my day, all the little kids learned the (Salish) language. That’s who we are. I see the voice of the Indian coming back. We want the people to know who they are. The (Salish) language contains our wisdom and our identity,” Pierre, 87, said. “Assimilation started long time ago. We can turn that around. Our children can stand tall, can walk with their heads held high knowing who they are.”

A page from the Kalispell Tribe’s Salish language textbook that uses Salish to tell its traditional stories. (B.L. Azure photo) A page from the Kalispell Tribe’s Salish language textbook that uses Salish to tell its traditional stories. (B.L. Azure photo)

Pierre said that if the tribal people lose their languages they cease to be who they are. He praised four young people — Tachini Pete, Josh Brown, Chaney Bell and Melanie Sandoval — now adults, who came to him years ago saying they wanted to learn Salish and help preserve it. “Those four young people said they wanted to bring our language back,” Pierre said. “My first thought was a good one. I thought our language was going to come back because of them. They were sincere. Young people are now coming to Nkwusm because they want to learn the language. They will know who they are; they will become who we are as a tribal people because of our language. They are thinking in Salish. Assimilation is no more. That’s why I keep doing what I am doing, bringing back the identity of our people.”

That — bringing back the tribal identity and mindset — was the underlying theme of all the presenters at the tribal language summit.

Montana State Senator Jonathon Windy Boy (D-Box Elder) was the major push behind legislation aimed at preserving the tribal languages of Montana Indians. (B.L. Azure photo)   Montana State Senator Jonathon Windy Boy (D-Box Elder) was the major push behind legislation aimed at preserving the tribal languages of Montana Indians. (B.L. Azure photo)

“Each tribe to a certain degree had their individual take on saving the tribal languages,” said Chaney Bell of the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee. “But they all realize that the tribal language is the foundation of who they are as a distinct people and where they come from. That’s all contained within the language. Within the tribal language that our ancestors spoke for thousands of years is the wisdom of our people. When we understand that we will come together as a whole people.”

Bell said the tribal language summits would continue throughout the state. The first was held at Fort Belknap and the second at Flathead; the next will be at Northern Cheyenne.

Ramey Growing Thunder of Fort Peck sings a Nakota song at the language summit. (B.L. Azure photo) Ramey Growing Thunder of Fort Peck sings a Nakota song at the language summit. (B.L. Azure photo)

Bell said he was thankful for Sen. Windy Boy’s efforts in the Montana Legislature as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council’s support. He also praised the efforts of the public schools, Flathead Early Childhood Services, Nkwusm Salish Language Immersion School and Salish Kootenai College for their language salvation efforts.

“To see Montana step up with the bill to help save the tribal languages was cool,” Bell said. “Every bit of help we get is a good thing.”

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