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Kootenai Culture Committee on monumental journey to save the Kootenai language

By Alyssa Kelly
Char-Koosta News

Auld is teaching his students the Kootenai alphabet and says he is prioritizing the sounds of the words. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)Auld is teaching his students the Kootenai alphabet and says he is prioritizing the sounds of the words. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

ELMO — With only a handful of fluent speaking elders in the Elmo community, Francis Auld said the Kootenai language is in critical condition. Adopted and raised by fluent speakers Peter and Lucy Auld, Auld is managing the Kootenai Culture Committee’s language apprentice program.

“Qatwi is our word for think,” Auld said. “It’s actually a combination word that describes it coming from your mind and your heart. In English, thinking only applies to the mind. Our language shows how different we are from the English mindset and it’s important to preserve that.”  

Francis Auld is the manager and instructor for the Kootenai Culture Committee’s language apprentice program. Auld was raised by fluent speakers and has been working in Kootenai cultural preservation since 1987. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)Francis Auld is the manager and instructor for the Kootenai Culture Committee’s language apprentice program. Auld was raised by fluent speakers and has been working in Kootenai cultural preservation since 1987. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

Kootenai is one of few languages in the world considered a linguistic isolate, meaning it is not related to any other language. Phonetically, Kootenai is dependent on pitch, meaning the pitch of the word could change its meaning,” Auld said. “We really need to listen to how the words are being said. That’s what we’re working on now — listening to the elders speak on tapes.”

As the program’s sole instructor, Auld has spent the past year working with six apprentices teaching and learning the Kootenai language. The group works on a quarterly lesson basis and is tested on language identification, use and pronunciation. “I’ve seen improvement,” Auld said of his students’ progress. “Every exam I have been getting stricter with the ABCs and they’re catching on.”

Auld incorporates various language techniques to engage his students. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)Auld incorporates various language techniques to engage his students. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

Auld said the group’s work follows a long history of Kootenai language revitalization efforts. In 1975, the Kootenai Culture Committee was established and recorded fluent speaking elders including Mary Andrews, Adeline Mathias, Patricia Hewankorn, Oshanee Kenmille and Eneas Pierre, to name a few. The series included fluent conversations and Ktunaxa legends.

Since then, Auld said there have been several Kootenai language courses offered within the community and local schools using various techniques. “There’s been several efforts to teach or learn the language,” Auld said. “It’s been spread out and there hasn’t been one focus so things would start and stop. We realized we needed something based on one system so that it could progress.”

Auld’s former colleague Vernon Finley attended the Celebrating Salish language conference in Spokane, Washington to learn about successful language revitalization techniques. Using Kootenai language materials that have already been developed, Finley created a level one curriculum that includes a textbook and technical learning materials.

Language apprentice Brandon James admires the work his fluent speaking grandmother Madeline Couture did in Kootenai language revitalization. (Alyssa Kelly Photo) Language apprentice Brandon James admires the work his fluent speaking grandmother Madeline Couture did in Kootenai language revitalization. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

Aside from learning materials, Auld said cultural trauma has contributed to the struggle to revitalize the Kootenai language. In 1883, the US Secretary of Interior reported to Congress that the “heathen” practices of traditional Native American spirituality needed to be eliminated. In 1892, Congress passed regulations against tribal traditional, cultural and spiritual practices that called for imprisonment and arrests that often ended with fatalities. It wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act protected Native American spiritual practices.

Auld said the Kootenai community is struggling to balance their traditional and modern identity. “The separation between church and state has impacted who we are as Ktunaxa people,” Auld said. “Our spirituality isn’t reserved for Sundays; it’s who we are. Learning the language is the same way. It’s not enough to study it you have to live it to learn. Chief Cliff (mountain) is a place of solace for us. The landscape provides a place for us to reconnect. I encourage my students to go up there and take in what they’re learning.”

Language apprentice Ina Andrews studies for her upcoming language exam. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)Language apprentice Ina Andrews studies for her upcoming language exam. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

Funding has become the focal issue in language revitalization. Auld said he attended a conference in Arizona that discussed how language efforts funded on a grant-to-grant basis are unsuccessful. The Kootenai Culture Committee’s language program is tribally funded. “When we started this I told council that we needed to take this on seriously, language is not a grant effort,” Auld said. “I told them they needed to think of language as an investment if we were ever going to create something that could carry its own. We needed commitment from our government body.”

Chosen from 40 applicants, the Kootenai language apprentices will be finishing their first of a five-year program. Auld has developed a learning cycle based on mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health that includes conversation, alphabet, Total Physical Response (TPR), sentences, and the Kootenai dictionary. His goal is to have the apprentices teaching as they learn.

Auld said the Kootenai Culture Committee is using technical advances to make language more accessible. The group is working with Google Earth to create and interactive map of the Kootenai’s aboriginal territory. (Alyssa Kelly Photo) Auld said the Kootenai Culture Committee is using technical advances to make language more accessible. The group is working with Google Earth to create and interactive map of the Kootenai’s aboriginal territory. (Alyssa Kelly Photo)

“I’m really using a brainwashing technique, for lack of a better term,” Auld said. “These guys are going to have to relearn everything they know and really shut off the English side of their brains. Our ancestors spoke broken English and now these guys are speaking broken Kootenai.”

Language apprentice Brandon James said the program is difficult but rewarding. “My grandmother Madeline Couture was a fluent speaker and I grew up listening to her talk,” he said. “Learning is difficult but I love it because we’re reconnecting. It’s who we are. I wish I had paid more attention back when she was alive. I wish I would have known how important this was back then.”

Auld said the Kootenai Culture Committee is currently working on technical developments in the language including an interactive map on Google Earth, which outlines the Kootenai’s aboriginal territory. Auld said he is continuing to teach interested community members language via e-mail or group lessons when attendance will allow.

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