MISSOULA (AP) — More than 200 Indigenous languages in the United States have gone extinct in the last 400 years, according to the Language Conservancy.

Aspen Decker, a University of Montana graduate student in linguistics from Arlee, wants to ensure the Salish language doesn't experience a similar fate.

“I want to make sure that I've increased the amount of speakers in my community because my children and myself, you know, we're not going to have very many language speakers to talk to,” Decker told the Missoulian.

“We're going to need to grow this community of speakers in order to really preserve the language and make sure that it's healthy and thriving.”

Only 13 elders can still speak Salish fluently, Decker said. She and her four children are now among the first generation of bilingual speakers of her community in nearly 75 years.

But Decker's work goes beyond being a student. She was recently hired as the Native community and museum education coordinator of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, where she is developing signage for the new museum that will be translated into Salish.

She's also in the process of launching a new student organization called the Indigenous Storytelling Club with the goal of creating greater representation of Indigenous ways of knowing on campus.

In addition to all of that, Decker is developing a curriculum for a Plains Indian sign language course, using financing from an Indigenous Research Center Faculty Researchers Award. Last month, she kicked off the Montana Book Festival by presenting a land acknowledgement statement in Salish.

“I think the importance (of land acknowledgements) is that this land here was our aboriginal territory for over 14,000 years and the word Missoula actually comes from the Salish word Nmesule?tk? and that means place of the freezing water,” Decker said. “It really dates us back to that Glacial Lake Missoula time. I think it's important for Missoulians and our local community to really know this history that dates so far back.” 

Indigenous Peoples' Day

In Montana, the state as a whole does not recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day. It is generally celebrated on the second Monday of October, also known as Columbus Day. However, the holiday is celebrated by municipalities such as Missoula, Bozeman, Helena and Harlem.

State Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, introduced a bill in 2019 that would have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, but the bill was ultimately tabled by the Senate Administration Committee. Morigeau introduced a similar bill during the 2021 legislative session that met the same fate.

Indigenous Peoples' Day is recognized by 13 states, including Alaska, California and Louisiana.

President Joe Biden made history by issuing the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples' Day, which he signed on Friday, Oct. 8. He also issued a proclamation for Columbus Day, which is established by Congress.

“For generations, federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples' resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

Language revitalization 

Speaking Salish was part of Decker's upbringing, primarily from her great aunts and other tribal elders. Initially she heard the language at winter dances and other seasonal events.

Growing up, Decker attended the Nk??usm Salish Language School in Arlee where Pat Pierre was her lead elder. He nurtured her the love of the language and helped her gain fluency.

“What he said in his speeches was so wise and it helped me to form my passion in life,” Decker said. “So ever since then, everything that I've done has been about language revitalization.”

She spent some time in Washington working with the Kalispel Tribe and its language program before coming back to the Flathead Reservation for her bachelor of arts degree in tribal historic preservation from Salish Kootenai College. She later taught Native American history and Salish at St. Ignatius High School.

Now, she's in her second year of master's research in linguistics and collects data from first-language Salish speakers.

“I knew that I kind of already had this immersion fluency where it was this natural way of understanding the language,” Decker said. “But I know that there's just so much that goes along with the languages as far as the functions and the rules to really be able to preserve the language.”

Her work now is a race against the clock as tribal elders age. Decker figures she only has a decade or so left with these fluent speakers.

“It's a really, really important time to document everything that they have,” Decker said.

When Decker was pregnant with her first child, she would speak Salish to her in the womb. She also spoke in Salish with tribal elders while she was pregnant.

“When we would go visit (the elders) she would just get all excited, it's like she already recognized her voice and Salish,” Decker said of her daughter.

Decker generally only speaks to her four children in Salish. By teaching them the language from a young age, she's been able to examine Salish “baby talk” that has been missing from the community for many generations.

The multi-generational gap in Salish fluency is tied directly to boarding schools that began operating in the late 1800s by the federal government in an attempt to assimilate Native American children to white, Christian culture, Decker explained. In the schools, children were harshly punished for speaking their native language or practicing their culture.

As a result of the trauma, many of those who attended the boarding schools did not pass down their language or cultural practices to future generations.

The government also prohibited Native Americans from practicing their culture until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Following the act, there was a surge for language revitalization across many Native American communities.

“Now it's this really active thing that we're all trying to do,” Decker said. “We're trying to preserve and revitalize the language and so I feel like there's a lot more people now that are really trying to learn the language.”

The most challenging part of teaching Salish to others is to keep new learners engaged and motivated, Decker said.

“It's hard to bring in the youth and make them feel the value of why we should still know Salish even if it's the nondominant language,” Decker said.

Regardless of the challenges associated with revitalizing the language, she remains steadfast in her mission.

Pierre told Decker that she shouldn't hold the language like a burden and should instead live it.

“That's what really set in with me,” Decker said. “It's not my job to have to do this, it's my lifestyle and it's part of who we are and we do it because it's who we are.”

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