ARLEE — Tribal languages bind practitioners to the past, it anchors them to the present and guides them to the future. It contains the true colors and nuances of their culture, traditions and spirituality: the essence of their being.
There is an ever-growing effort in Indian Country to rediscover that essence by the revitalization and preservation of the various original languages of the aboriginal people of America.
The ongoing and growing Salish language revitalization and preservation effort by the Flathead Nation has attracted attention of others. Four members from the Chickasaw Nation recently journeyed from Ada, Oklahoma to the Flathead Reservation to learn about the salvation effort of the Salish language.
The four — Juliet Morgan, Joshua Hinson, Brandon White Eagle and Ric Greenwood — are staffers from the Chickasaw Academy that has a similar mission of revitalization and preservation of the Chickasaw language.
“We have had a full time language program since 2007. We have an employee program, a youth program, and a children’s language club,” Hinson said. They have two Chickasaw dictionaries, two beginning workbooks, a language app, a website and a custom made Rosetta Stone Chickasaw language teaching manual that contains 160 lessons. “I think we have a similar teaching approach as they do here. We are here to see how the Salish language workbook is applied in the classroom. We want incorporate that approach in our program.”
The Salish language curriculum workbook Hinson alluded to was written by Chris Parkin, a non-Indian former Spanish teacher in the Spokane, Washington school system. Parkin’s wife is a member of the Colville Tribe; they both quit their jobs and moved to Canada to learn Salish from a fluent speaker. From that they used Parkin’s Spanish teaching experience to create a curriculum for teaching the Salish language. The workbooks are used at Nkwusm Salish Language School and the Adult Salish Language Program.
“We’ve tried a lot of approaches but that was expensive,” said Chaney Bell, Adult Salish Language Program manager. “Chris developed the curriculum that we use and we have had positive results.”
“A lot of our people want to learn language but when they get involved they become overwhelmed,” Greenwood said.
“It’s been a hard sell to convince people about the importance of the language,” Hinson said. “I used to say things are fine but they’re not. We are at that point now with language acquisition. If we can get assistance from others, why not.”
“It’s hard to keep the language going, that’s why we built this language community of Elders, adults and youth. We have had to refine our approach and strive to get better,” Bell said. “Our focus has changed to adults. There is still focus on our youth learners but we don’t want to stop with the kids. The key thing now is the need to focus on adults. We want to create adult speakers in small groups and grow from there.”
Adult Salish language teacher Steve Arca and the adult students gave a 30-minute demonstration of how the Salish language curriculum workbook is used to teach the Salish lessons. There are 45 lessons in each of the books that take three weeks to go through.
“We teach the adults to become good teachers,” said Stephan SmallSalmon, Salish language teacher at Nkwusm. “You have to choose who you want here as learners.”
Among the recent language teaching growth efforts out there is the Salish Language Educational Development Program at Salish Kootenai College. The two-year Salish language teaching associates degree takes three years to complete because the first year is a concentrated effort on learning the Salish language. The remaining two years focus on regular classes and how to incorporate Salish language lessons in them.
“We are doing this for our children, our future. It helps us understand who we are,” Bell said. “I would hate to see this beautiful language that was given to us by our Creator and handed down to us by our Ancestors go silent.”
There are 68,000 members of the Chickasaw Nation; 20,000 live on the Service Area, as their land in trust — Rez — is called. There are 50 fluent Chickasaw language speakers left. Since 1983 tribal membership has been descendent based. The capital of the Service Area is located in Ada in south-central Oklahoma. A large portion of the tribal income comes from casino operations.
“Governor (Bill) Anoatubby has put a strong emphasis on history, language and culture,” Hinson said, adding that the governor of the Chickasaw Nation charged the Chickasaw Academy to come up with a solution to save the Chickasaw language. “The story based curriculum used here is a good tool for an immersion program. It uses image-based tribal stories to teach the language.”
Hinson said the Chickasaw have similar tribal stories and images to use in their teaching effort. “We use the coyote, wolf and fox to as learning tools, we learn from their mistakes. Our possum tales are our traditional stories,” he said. “We are in the process of continued improvement. When we have a problem, we fix it. We want today’s generations and those to come to have access to the language without impediments.”
All agreed that there should be no impediments to learning the essence of existence.
The Chickasaw were one of the five “civilized” tribes of the southeast area of pre-America. The others are the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek or Muscogee and Seminole The major portions of their homelands were in what is now northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama, as well as portions of Kentucky and Tennessee. The Treaty of 1786 acknowledged those landholdings, however the 1832 Removal Treaty resulted in the displacement of their homelands and the forced removal to the Oklahoma territory and the Trail of Tears in 1837. The last of the Chickasaw Trail of Tears ended in the 1850s when the remaining Chickasaw made their way to the new homeland in Oklahoma. There are 39 federally recognized Indian tribes in Oklahoma and one non-recognized tribe.