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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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A healthy sign for Yakama language
Middle-school classes help students keep their culture alive

by Philip Ferolito - Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH -- Students gaze attentively at Loretta Selam-White as she motions her hand away from her body in a gesture that translates "Go my son" in the Yakama language.

Surrounding Selam-White in a large circle, the students follow her lead, listening to the instructions on how to sign.

"Go my son," she says, beginning the first verse of the song again. "It should be an inside hand -- the back of your hand should be facing you. "Go my son and earn your feather," Selam-White says, as the 26 students follow her every move further into the first verse.

"You don't want your feather here because you don't wear your feather here," she reminds them while pointing to the side of her head. "You want your feather to stand tall back here," she says, holding up two fingers at the crown of her head.

Selam-White takes the students through it again before going to the next verse.

"Make your people proud of you," she says, turning her body to the right with arm extended as if she was pointing to a group of people.

Students replicate every move as the song plays on a tape recorder.

Selam-White's special visit adds another cultural piece to Rosemary Miller's class at Toppenish Middle School, where students in grades four through eight are learning the Yakama language.

"It's a healing; it's a soothing that they can drift into," says Selam-White, who has taught Yakama sign language for more than 15 years. "They'll be so proud when they're performing it."

Eighth-grader Cassandra Wesley, whose signing lessons began at home when she was 10, says the class is a place where she feels comfortable.

"Actually, I feel pretty strong about this," she says. "I'm going to try and encourage my little nephews and cousins" to get involved in the class.

Signing is integral to the Yakama language, she says, noting that it's still used by some in ceremonies where talking is forbidden.

Today, signing has become more of a cultural performance.

"And the smiles on those old people's faces; it just touches the elders' hearts," says Selam-White.

The language class, which incorporates other aspects of Yakama culture, is open to middle school students and meets every Tuesday and Thursday. Its aim is to keep the Yakama language and culture alive.

"There is a lot of interest," Miller says. "It's neat to open it (to non-Indians), because they are excited about our culture."

There are many dialects of the Yakama language, because the Yakamas are a confederation of 14 tribes, and Miller says she tries to make it all available to students.

"We just encourage them to learn as much as they can and I think that's how our language is going to be saved," says Miller, who has taught with the Toppenish School District for 16 years and recently began teaching the Yakama language.

"We're trying to pull in as many elders as we can to come in and teach our culture."

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