ARLEE — The Nk̓ʷusm Fall Dinner had all the tasty food of a typical Western Thanksgiving celebration but the comparison stopped there. There certainly was a spirit of thankfulness wafting through the air in the Arlee Community Center but it was thankfulness of the spiritual, cultural, traditional and linguistic salvation of the Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal people despite the federal government’s assimilation policy intent of stripping them of the very essence — spirit — of their existence. It worked in some ways but not on the most important: the sense of being of who they are: Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal people and all that uniqueness encompasses.
The day featured five Nk̓ʷusm student tribal cultural presentations: preschool students under the direction of Nicole Perry and Vance Home Gun singing in Salish; Kindergarten-1st grade under the direction of Echo Brown performing Brown Bear, Brown Bear; 2nd-4th grade under the direction of Gene Beaverhead performing Lost Boy; and 5th-8th grade under the direction of Elisabeth DeRoche performing Grumpy Blue Bird.
The performances were based on traditional tribal stories that contained lessons learned throughout the existence of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille.
Nk̓ʷusm Language School Salish language teacher and Elder Stephen SmallSalmon said the goal of Nk̓ʷusm is more than teaching Salish, which is very, very important since there are few fluent Salish speaking people remaining, around 20. The language is the foundation of everything that is unique to the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal people. It paints the true and fulfilling picture of who they are spiritually, culturally and traditionally. That is the import of the language.
“We have to keep this up or we will not exist,” SmallSalmon said. “That’s what Pat (Pierre) believed. I will keep this up as long as I’m alive. That’s what Pat did.”
The late-Pat Pierre often said that if the language is lost, the people would be lost, and as a result the federal government would say they don’t exist anymore. He did teach at Nk̓ʷusm until cancer got the best of him.
His words have been taken more and more seriously over the years by the tribal government in its financial backing of Salish and Kootenai language revitalization efforts. Salish Kootenai College also incorporates the revitalization efforts in its class offerings.
Thankfully four young tribal people — Melanie Sandoval, Tachini Pete, Josh Brown and Chaney Bell — spearheaded the Salish revitalization effort that eventually resulted in Nk̓ʷusm Salish Language School, now many years ago.
Be thankful, because the very young are now walking in the trail blazed by those four. If not for them it is possible that what went on last Wednesday wouldn’t have happened.