Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 12, 2000 - Issue 16

Group Wants Tribal Languages Taught in Schools
by Rob McDonald staff writer Spokane Net

French, Spanish or Salish?

As long as children learn a language in school, why not preserve their culture too, says a group of educators, tribal members and elders

The First Peoples Language Committee of Washington state wants children to have the option of learning native language as they would other languages

The group also wants tribes to have a say in who is qualified to teach native languages and seeks to create a state-approved system to qualify native speakers to teach in schools.

Committee meetings have been alternating between Eastern and Western Washington sites since it formed in October with representatives of 18 of the state's 31 tribes in attendance.

Monday afternoon, the group met at Spokane Falls Community College to fine-tune a proposal headed for the Washington State Education Board as early as fall.

The group agreed to seek support from tribal organizations such as the Washington state Governor's Office of Indian Affairs and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians

The struggle to keep the languages alive has become more urgent in recent years. Tribal members are concerned because the elders who know the languages best are dying.

Besides trying to get native languages taught in public schools, the committee has been trying to establish standards for how those languages will be taught.

"Right now it's not consistent from one school to the next," said Rodney Cawston, chairman at Monday's meeting.

Guest speaker Joyce Silverthorne, the education director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, explained how Montana tribes united to ask the state for a system to get fluent speakers into the classrooms.

Montana has eight tribes with 11 indigenous languages, and the number of fluent speakers varies greatly. The Gross Ventre tribe has five fluent speakers, while the Crow Nation has hundreds. They needed a system that fit everyone.

"We came with a unified front for probably the first time," Silverthorne said.

Montana listened, she said, and formed a system to get more fluent native speakers in public classrooms.

It's not easy teaching traditional American Indian languages.

The duty generally falls on elders without formal education backgrounds, Silverthorne said.

"Not every elder is the best teacher," she said. "That is what we struggled with."

In Montana, school superintendents can get permission to hire tribally accepted language teachers who do not have degrees.

The First Peoples Language Committee wants a system where minimal schooling can get an elder in the classroom to teach only language classes.

Last fall, the Wellpinit School on the Spokane Indian Reservation gave students the option of taking Salish language classes at the nearby Salish Kootenai College branch campus.

"One of the best language teachers I have seen is Pauline (Flett, a Spokane tribal elder)," Silverthorne said. "She teaches the humor, the laughter of the community. The approach is very holistic."

Flett taught Salish at Eastern Washington University for several years and now works for her tribe's language program at Wellpinit.

It took time for the university system to appreciate the depth of her knowledge and allow her to teach accredited classes, Silverthorne said.

"There are some success stories, but they will not bring the language back," she said.

Students spend six hours a day in school. Unless the students hear the language at home, in school and around town in businesses, it won't be absorbed, Silverthorne said.

"It's community change, not just language teaching," she said.

How and what should be taught can be a touchy subject.

In Montana, a Blackfeet language immersion program raised questions when students were taught a different dialect of the language than their parents use.

"These are hard questions," she said. "These are the very soul of the community. This is our culture. You're telling how we live our daily life and how we treat the world around us."

Ethnologue:Americas Languages
United States of America. 261,000,000 (1994 US Census Bureau); 1,900,000 American Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, not all speaking indigenous languages (1990 census).



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