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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 13, 2003 - Issue 102


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Salish Revival

by John Stromnes of the Missoulian
credits: Joshua Brown chats with sisters Siliye, center, and Susseli Pete at the Salish language immersion school in Arlee last week. Brown was recently awarded a 2003 Echoing Green fellowship worth $60,000 over two years to fund the Salish Language Perpetuation Project. Photo by Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

Joshua Brown chats with sisters Siliye, center, and Susseli Pete at the Salish language immersion school in Arlee last week. Brown was recently awarded a 2003 Echoing Green fellowship worth $60,000 over two years to fund the Salish Language Perpetuation Project. Photo by Michael Gallacher/MissoulianARLEE - Joshua Brown has studied such arcane subjects as social linguistics and bilingual education but still isn't fluent in Salish, the native tongue of his Indian tribe.

Neither are most Salish Indians on the Flathead Reservation.

Salish as a living language is dying fast, Brown said. Only 70 to 80 people are fluent out of some 6,000 enrolled members in the entire tribal confederacy - Pend d'Oreille, Salish and Kootenai. (Salish is by far the largest of the three tribal groups that comprise the Flathead Nation.)

Brown aims to revive the language as a living, cultural force with the help of a two-year, $60,000 "social entrepreneurship" award from a foundation in New York City.

The Pablo resident, who has a master's degree in public administration from the University of Montana, is a founder of the Salish language-immersion school, Nk(w)usm (One Fire) in Arlee. He was recently named one of the world's Top 10 Emerging Social Entrepreneurs for 2003 by Echoing Green, a nonprofit group started by the venture-capital investment firm General Atlantic Partners.

Competition for the fellowship is tough. Brown said he went through a rigorous written competition against more than 100 other hopefuls, and surprised himself by making the finals last spring.

In New York, he went through grueling days of formal interviews with the foundation's selection panel, who themselves were social entrepreneurs recruited from all over the world. From the 25 semifinalists, 10 were chosen to receive the $60,000 grants, Brown said.

"It was basically like defending your thesis" for a graduate degree, Brown said of the experience.

Since then, he's attended Echoing Green workshops in Greenwich, Conn., and San Francisco addressing social entrepreneurship skills, including, he said, the vital "60-second elevator pitch" in which you explain your program's mission and need to potential donors.

Over the past 16 years, Echoing Green has invested $21 million in seed money to more than 370 individuals who the organization defines as "talented yet unproven social entrepreneurs dedicated to addressing the root causes of social challenges" and "visionaries who will develop new solutions to society's most difficult problems ... (and) who will work to close deeply rooted social, economic and political inequities to ensure equal access and to help all individuals reach his/her potential."

So the grant is a pretty big deal for a low-key, gentle, soft-spoken, bespectacled 29-year-old from the Flathead Reservation, Brown agreed.

An attorney for the Eastern Montana Self-Help Law Project also was a winner. That project uses technology, volunteer attorneys, paralegals and lay community members to help people represent themselves in court in civil proceedings.

Brown started thinking about becoming a social entrepreneur - although not in those exact terms - several years ago when his friend and mentor Clarence Woodcock, a beloved Salish elder, editor, linguist and cultural leader, died. Brown had learned much from Woodcock, including language skills, spiritual and cultural traditions, while in high school in St. Ignatius.

When Woodcock died, Brown was an undergraduate majoring in environmental sciences at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. This field of study would almost surely get him a good job with the resource-rich Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes when he graduated.

But with Woodcock dead, Brown realized that his easy access to a fluent Salish speaker and cultural leader had been cut off forever.

"When he died, I realized that I took a lot of things for granted," Brown said. So he changed his academic major, his goals and his outlook on life.

"Ever since then, I have studied history, linguistics and education," he said.

While at college, he started thinking about how to revive Salish as a useful, vital, living tongue among the Salish people on the reservation.

Deliberate repression of the Indian language by religious and civil authorities for two generations - now referred to politely as "the boarding school experience" in tribal cultures throughout the western United States - had severely eroded the language by the time Brown was born.

Salish was rarely spoken by anyone outside the home, and then usually only among elders. Brown's parents, for example, spoke little Salish at home. He remembers learning Salish words and phrases from his great-grandparents and great uncles.

At St. Ignatius High School, he attended Salish classes, but they were only "enrichment" courses of study, designed to familiarize students with the local Salish cultural tradition, not language fluency.

That kind of instruction will never save Salish from extinction, Brown said.

"Public schools are never going to save the Salish language ... they can't and should not be expected to do it by themselves," he said.

"The Salish community should take the lead and possibly partner with schools and other entities to move away from enrichment programs only, and discover solutions that will really produce people who are highly fluent in at least the Salish and English languages."

Last year, Brown and others sought support from the tribal government to do just that, starting Nk(w)usm (One Fire) in Arlee for children ages 2 to 5. There is no requirement that parents or children be enrolled tribal members, only that parents maintain an active interest in the school, helping with school repairs, maintenance, fund-raising and the like, and that the children attend regularly.

The tribal government encouraged the venture, providing $170,000 in funding last year, and $200,000 this year for staff and operations. The school recruited and hired fluent Salish speakers, mostly older tribal members, and supplemented them with younger folks, like Brown, who had academic training and teaching expertise. The school now has 17 students - seeds for the future of the Salish language, Brown and others hope.

The Echoing Green grant will allow Brown to form a nonprofit group to expand and elaborate on the mission of the school, working in tandem with it, he said, to revive Salish as a spoken, used and useful language and as a tool for cultural revival.

Brown said the formal structure of the nonprofit, tax-exempt Salish Language Perpetuation Project he will form with the $60,000 grant is a work in progress. But he foresees a collaboration between a variety of tribal and nontribal entities and individuals. The tribal government, especially the CSKT Education Department, is vital to its success, as is Salish Kootenai College, local public elementary and secondary schools and UM.

It is not too late to revive Salish, he contends.

Other aboriginal people - the Maori of New Zealand, for example, and the native cultures of Hawaii - have had success reviving languages within those societies, Brown said.

"Language is the foundation of society and the fundamental key that connects generations through time. The Salish Language Perpetuation Project will ensure that our language and heritage do not become extinct," he said.

Echoing Green warns fellowship recipients that entrepreneurship is fraught with risk, success is never guaranteed, and there may not be a steady job at the end of the rainbow. Brown has accepted the risks.

"I want Salish to be the language of our community, the language of the heart of the Salish people," he said.

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