Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 2, 2001 - Issue 37



Lummis Place Premium on Recovering Language


by Mary Lane Gallagher and Kari Thorene Shaw, The Bellingham Herald

  On the steps outside the Lummi Tribal School culture building, Lummi teacher Cynthia Wilson (right) listens to Sunshine James read a poem she wrote. Dave Wilson assists Lummi Tribal School student Paul Scott with a carving project. Jay Drowns, Herald Photos  
How do you learn words your family was forbidden to speak?

How do you know how to make something you've never seen?

Ask Dave Wilson, who is leading Lummi school's effort to build a dugout cedar canoe, the kind no one has seen at Lummi for 80 years.

He started small, with a miniature canoe he carved from a plank of fragrant cedar.

"I did it kind of to make a point," he said, "that things don't have to be perfect to get started."

How do you teach a language you've never heard?

Ask Cynthia Wilson, Dave's sister, who is trying to revive the Lummi language after decades of silence. She started studying the language 15 years ago and now teaches it through Lummi Tribal School's fledgling culture program.

Learning a language and digging a canoe are both slow tasks, but progress can be measured over time. It's measured in the fragrant cedar chips collecting at Dave Wilson's feet like drifts of tiny rose petals. It's measured in the Lummi words children rehearse in the classroom. The last time the Lummis had a dugout canoe, they called it a xwqw'ew7qlh. But over the years -- and through federal education policy aimed at wiping out American Indian languages -- the word "canoe" has become more recognizable to Lummi ears.

Now tribes across the country are fighting to get their languages back and to teach them in the same federal Indian schools that helped destroy them.

Here at Lummi Reservation, school and government officials see that transformation in schooling as vital to the tribe's future.

"Part of it is identity: Who we are and who we want to be," said Bill James, director of Lummi Nation's language recovery programs.

"What does it say on T-shirts? 'No Fear,'" he said. "Our new motto is no more fear to learn our language -- to have no more shame in it anymore and we can be proud of who we are."

The power of words
Language is the vessel that carries culture: That's what Cynthia Wilson tells her students.

"It's more than studying the language," she said. "Words have a meaning in the way things are. ... You learn about the way people lived, what their houses were like, what they ate, through the language."

It's hard for her, too. Fifteen years ago, she didn't know how to say hyeshqe (pronounced "hi esh ka"), the Coast Salish word for thank you.

Wilson teaches the Lummi dialect of the Coast Salish language. Variations of the latter are spoken from the south Puget Sound region north to Vancouver, B.C.

Just as she views Indian languages as a way to recover culture, 19th-century federal officials saw English-only curricula as a powerful tool to exterminate it. By the time Chemewa Indian School in Salem, Ore., opened in 1880 and Tulalip Boarding School opened in 1901, using schools to destroy American Indian languages was a matter of federal policy.

In the book "The Schooling of the Lummi Indians," Charles Buchanan, superintendent of the federal Indian School Service, was quoted by author Ann Nugent in a 1905 letter admonishing Indian employees at Tulalip to stop speaking Coast Salish to the children: "It has been reported to me ... that you are accustomed to conversing with the pupils in Indian. All of these things are direct violations of the school rules and must cease immediately. ... Your conversations with them must be exclusively in English."

Punishing language
Such policies ripped through generations, as adults once punished for speaking Coast Salish refused to teach their children the language.

"Our people were seriously abused for speaking our language," James said. "That's what caused our language to be lost."

The treatment of Indian children in boarding schools, from imprisonment to daily humiliation for not comprehending classes taught in English, is well-documented. Last year, federal officials finally acknowledged it and apologized.

"This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government and made Indian people ashamed of who they were," Kevin Gover, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in his landmark apology last September. "Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually."

Ernestine Point teaches Lummi cooking, beading and basket making at Lummi Tribal School. Her father went to Tulalip Boarding School.

"I heard the language when the elders spoke, but not at home," said Point, who learned Coast Salish at Northwest Indian College. "My father was Catholic. He was brought up in the boarding schools. ... He knew a lot of the Lummi language, but he never spoke it because it was forbidden when he went to school.

"I was surprised when I found out he knew much of it, because it was never spoken at home."

Lummi language teacher George Adams remembers that his grandparents spoke Lummi, but his parents spoke only English.

"I kept asking questions," he said. "How come you say it this way and Grandma says it that way?"

A small group, including Adams and James, started learning and speaking the language in the 1960s. But as every old person died, their knowledge of the language -- its inflections, slang and nuances -- died with them.

It's a problem facing all of Puget Sound's Coast Salish-speaking tribes.

"I wasn't brought up learning the language," said Tammy Cooper, Coast Salish teacher at Chief Leschi School in Puyallup. She learned the language through classes at Antioch University in Seattle.

"We had elders who spoke it, but they passed on," Cooper said. "We find ourselves looking to elders from other tribes."

Reviving language
When language revival is the goal, tribal schools are the chosen method. Lummi Tribal and Chief Leschi schools have both made the use of Coast Salish a high priority.

"Our goal is to have our language spoken within two generations," James said. "I hear people using the language more and more on a daily basis than I ever have."

In Cooper's first-grade language class, she plays "Salish Bingo." She says words in Coast Salish, and the children hunt on their bingo cards for the corresponding animal or object. They giggle and tease each other for making mistakes.

As Dave Wilson carves, he surrounds himself with the words of Lummi and Coast Salish languages by playing videos of area powwows where the language is spoken. He listens to it because he can't speak it.

"It's very hard for me" he said. "I speak only a few words."

Like carving the canoe, Wilson is learning the language by trial and error, relying on the teachings of older people.

"I always said I'm self-taught, but how can you ever be self-taught?" he said, reflecting on the carvings he studied as a youth to get a feel for the medium. "It's a style, an art that's passed on."

It might not be perfect, but it's a start.

Lummi Lessons




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