Giving new life to the words

Alumni are helping tribes throughout the Northwest revitalize indigenous languages before they’re lost forever
Jemma Everyhope-Roser

Other WWU Alumni Who Work in Indigenous Language Preservation

Michael Shepherd

When Shepard (’02, Fairhaven Interdisciplinary Concentration; ’07, M.A., Anthropology) was working on his master’s degree at Western, he began working with the Lummi Indian Nation, which has language programs in both Lummi Tribal Schools and the Ferndale School District. Today, after completing his doctorate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, he teaches online/hybrid courses in cultural sustainability and environmental studies for Goucher College. He also works closely with Ted Solomon, the Lummi Language Program director, to find grant funding for language teacher training as well as an electronic archive for the tribe’s language documentation. Giving students better access to documents and recordings such as field notes, songs, stories and audio recordings would be a great help to Lummi language learners, Shepard says. But the sensitive cultural materials are closely linked to the tribe’s sovereignty, he adds, so tribal leaders want to ensure the files would be very safe and access would be controlled.

Russell Hugo

Hugo (’06, Linguistics), another former student of English Professor Kristin Denham, recently completed a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and works at the UW Language Learning Center. Hugo, who studied the effects of technology in learning endangered languages, cautions against presenting technology as an “easy” solution to teach new speakers. Bad tools and limited content that are not pedagogically sound can set up language learners for failure and discourage them from continuing, he says. They can also be very expensive. Instead, he suggests, technological solutions must be centered on the content rather than delivery. Communities are better off strategically developing smaller projects that can also be integrated into a larger-scale project like an online textbook or course. His next projects: learning more about effective Indigenous language education advocacy and further developing an online course for the Yakima language.

“Some of our words for most of the basic ways we solve problems are different from English. They’re more in-depth.”
Ceremonial opening: David Duenas drums during the opening ceremony of The Lushootseed Language Institute, which is supported by the Puyallup Tribe and offers training to teachers, both official and unofficial, who will then teach others.

Danica Sterud Miller (’00, English) is a member of the Puyallup Tribe and grew up in Fife on the Puyallup Indian Reservation in a family active in tribal affairs.

But Miller had never heard conversational Lushootseed, the language traditionally spoken by the Puyallup and several other Northwest tribes, until she was an undergraduate in English Professor Kristin Denham’s Coastal Salish literature class. Denham had invited guest speaker Vi Hilbert, a fluent Lushootseed speaker.

“It was powerful, exciting,” Miller says of listening to Hilbert, who died in 2008. Although Miller’s cousin directs the Puyallup language program and another cousin is now Lushootseed’s most fluent speaker, Miller grew up hearing only a few Lushootseed exclamations, not more.

That’s not a surprise considering that the Northwest has been dubbed a global hotspot for language loss by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Diverse indigenous languages are dying out— but several WWU alumni are involved in documenting and revitalizing them before they vanish.

A large part of the disappearance of these languages can be traced to government boarding schools, which forcibly enrolled indigenous children at 5 or even younger, and were created to systematically annihilate indigenous language and culture. Generations of children were severely punished for speaking the languages they learned from their families.

“I grew up knowing to ‘talk Indian’ would be to have your children taken away and sent into foster care,” Miller says.

Lushootseed Institute

Hearing Lushootseed in Denham’s undergraduate class continues to influence Miller’s work nearly 20 years later. After completing her doctoral degree in English at Fordham University in 2013, Miller is now an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at University of Washington Tacoma. She also organizes a summer Lushootseed Language Institute that gives priority registration to teachers—both official and unofficial—in the community.

“The institute’s about how to revitalize language in your community,” Miller says. The classes are funded largely by a grant from the Puyallup Tribal Council.

One way students incorporate Lushootseed into their daily lives is by setting up a “Lushootseed-only” area in their homes. People often select their kitchens, Miller says, though one beginner made her Lushootseed domain out of a particularly tempting armchair. Anyone who sat in it had to speak Lushootseed.

Even though Miller knew her people’s history with boarding schools, she says she went into teaching naively, with no idea some of her students had families who had been traumatized in the boarding schools. The wounds still hurt: Some students cried in class.

Denham, at Western, says many of her students have never heard of the boarding schools. “The effects aren’t well understood by students,” she says. “I show them pictures of Tulalip boarding school just down the road.”

The U.S. Indian boarding schools were created in the mid- 1800s and continued past the 1970s. Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, founded 1880, is widely known to be the first. Its founder, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, said: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one… In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Canadian residential schools, set up by the Canadian government starting in 1876 and administered by churches, operated on a similar model. Duncan Campbell Scott, a government official, wrote that the 50 percent mortality rate in the schools should not deter other officials from the “final solution of our Indian problem.”

Christopher Horsethief (’94, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies) and his family live with the aftermath of the Canadian residential schools. Horsethief is a member of the ʔa•kisq̓nuk First Nation located just outside of Windermere, British Columbia. His grandparents lived in interior British Columbia on an Indian reserve—the Canadian term for reservation—with their seven children. After the eldest four were forced into the residential schools, Horsethief ’s grandparents kidnapped their remaining three children and fled to the state of Washington.

“They left everything behind,” Horsethief says. “They gave up everything, their community.”

A texting app for indigenous languages

Horsethief, who completed his doctorate at Gonzaga University in Leadership Studies in 2012, works with tribes around North America, particularly in the Columbia River area, to revitalize their languages. He developed an app now used by about 25 tribes that allows users to text in indigenous languages.

Horsethief also draws upon his doctoral research in organizational theory to work with tribal members on language revitalization as central to cultural resiliency.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Horsethief says, many of Washington’s migrant agricultural workers were indigenous people like his own family. His grandparents’ three younger children were eventually placed in foster care because officials deemed the seminomadic lifestyle “inappropriate.”

“Someone once asked me if I thought my grandparents were justified in taking those three younger kids,” Horsethief says, “The four uncles and aunts of mine who went to the residential school all died brutal alcohol- and drug-related deaths. I never met them, never once met one. The three kidnapped away who ended up in the States all ended up in foster care together and those three are still alive together. So yes, I believe my grandparents were justified.”

Because indigenous children were beaten and abused for speaking their language, many began to view their language as something that shouldn’t be passed along, in order to protect their children. After a hundred years, these languages began to fade.

The older generation has a sense of guilt, Horsethief says, about not passing the language on. He tells them, “‘Residential, boarding school education wasn’t an accident. It was purposeful. It was sustained. It was an attempt to destroy our language and culture. So don’t feel bad about it. This is your chance to get involved.’ And this is a really hard process for people to have to go through.”

Horsethief grew up in Bellingham away from Ktunaxa, the language spoken by his grandparents’ tribe, pronounced “k-toon-nah-ha.” After graduating from Western, Horsethief moved to just outside Cranbrook, B.C., the center of the Ktunaxa speech community, then called St. Mary’s Indian Band or ʔaq̓am. Horsethief has long been interested in languages—he grew up learning Spanish and English together for 3 1/2 years —so he tackled Ktunaxa.

Learning it became a way for Horsethief to connect with his community. His willingness to make mistakes and not be discouraged allowed him to show older generations how important this is to him, while the speakers’ willingness to give him language tied him back into the cultural world.

Most learners, like Horsethief, come to their indigenous language as an adult, which complicates language revitalization. Because adults don’t learn language with the same facility as children, they simplify grammar, often developing an English-based pidgin.

“It’s not really the language,” Horsethief says, “and that starts to make an impact on how the language makes sense or is used to encode cultural information. Some of our words for most of the basic ways we solve problems are different from English. They’re more in-depth.”

Cultural clues in the language

“It’s ethically complicated to even say it’s a tragedy that the languages are dying, though that’s the general notion,” says Western’s Kristin Denham, “when many communities have matters of much more immediate concerns such as poverty, addiction, and economic development. But those turn out to be quite intertwined with language.”

Sometimes, Miller says, the benefits are practical. After the Fish Wars and the Boldt Decision, 50 percent of shellfish catches started going to the local tribes. But the state argued that the tribes had no rights to the valuable geoduck harvest, because they could not prove a history of possessing harvesting technology.

Miller says, “A Lushootseed linguist won the case by proving that geoduck is a Lushootseed word and establishing that white settlers learned how to hunt geoduck from us.”

Sometimes, the benefits are deeper, more complex.

“Every community, from two-person friendships to families to entire societies, forms culture,” says Horsethief. He describes culture as the residue of group decision-making. “You end up building over time these deep structures to help you make sense of the world—structures like language, family, history, spirituality, philosophy, a sense of purpose and identity—and those deep structures allow you to coordinate social activity and give you the tools you need to solve a problem.

“Colonization,” Horsethief says, “is when one group of people takes control of another group—even if they think they’re doing the right thing, if they think they’re helping—and they start forcibly damaging these deep structures. You create disorder in the system the group uses to solve their problems.

“Ktunaxa helps me face the world with a whole other set of problem-solving tools,” Horsethief says. “It’s like learning any second language. That’s what people don’t understand. Today Ktunaxa is our second language, English is our first language. We’re not trying to move away from English, we’re trying to have this other layer, this deeper layer, that maybe English isn’t so great at doing.”

‘This is a decolonizing act’

Miller describes the Lushootseed Language Institute as a success, a revitalization rather than language learning. Teachers from local Indian schools, as well as linguists and native students attended. Some passed the passion for language along. Miller has seen videos of local middle-schoolers speaking Lushootseed and playing basketball.

“It’s not like the stereotypes we see of the Indian in pop culture,” she says. “This is a decolonizing act. It is fun, the most fun I’ve ever had in an academic setting. It’s a powerful experience. It engages trauma, yet it is so exciting.”

Miller says acquiring fluency in Lushootseed is one of her top-three life goals. Yet even as a nonspeaker, she finds there’s still room for her in the language community: “I hope this will inspire other community members suffering from language loss to get involved.”

“It is fun, the most fun I’ve ever had in an academic setting.”
Danica Sterud Miller (’00, English) is a faculty member of the University of Washington Tacoma and directs a summer Lushootseed language program.
Photo courtesy of University of Washington Tacoma

is a freelance writer and editor and a program assistant in Western’s Office of Communication and Marketing.