SPOKANE, Wash. – After a three year hiatus due to COVID, the Celebrating Salish Conference was once again hosted at Northern Quest Resort and Casino (March 8-10). Over 500 were registered for the event, which has grown from the first year when it was held at Spokane Falls Community College, with 70 in attendance the first year. 

Kalispel elder, Francis Cullooyah, welcomed everyone to the conference and spoke about his own experience as a first language speaker. He felt lucky to learn from the old ones. His grandparents “didn’t have Master’s Degrees, didn’t go to college; they had everything there in front of them in their lives. They shared with one another.” 

He spoke about the traditional life of hunting, fishing, picking berries, digging roots despite fences and private property. “It is all part of our language and culture, our way of life.” Learning our languages goes hand-in-hand with those aspects of our culture and vice versa. “As we live our lives, our language is very important. Just as we are today, and you’re looking at me, put it into your heart so our hearts beat at the same time.” 

He described our language as slow-paced, which is against the grain of modern-day life, as well as the desire to acquire and save our languages: “It’s not like that in our language, but once we grasp it, and we take it into our hearts and minds that we are going to learn–let’s make that commitment and thing about those elders who made it their way of life.” Those elders made it without college degrees, so we should be able to do it ourselves. 

Daniel Smallsalmon Brown from Nk̓ ʷusm Salish Language School in Arlee, MT is a language teacher. “I grew up with my own perception of what being an Indian was.” He talked about being young and wild when he was 18. When he had kids and they were coming home from school speaking their language, he decided that he better do something because he didn’t understand what they were saying. 

He realized that there weren’t many language teachers, so he enrolled in Salish Kootenai College and got his AA degree so that he could teach adults. He taught two years in the adult program, and thought that’s where his life would remain. “If you learn a book, you can teach a book. I thought I was a pretty good teacher.” Then, his uncle wanted him to take over his class teaching the youth. He resisted. Next, he describes what he characterized as a language intervention: his sister Echo called and said they should have dinner. He knew something was up because it was in the middle of the week.

His uncle and sister were able to change his mind. “I learned what they knew and their levels. I hammered them with Coyote Stories–it’s kind of intense. It’s changed my life. I want that for all my people and anyone who wants it. You are all my people.” 

Stipn Smallsalmon, from the Flathead Reservation, had his own breakout session and told Coyote Stories, which always include a lesson. He told old stories with modern challenges, maximizing laughter. “Elders know laughter. We like to laugh, we like to joke around. We are supposed to shake hands, be nice, help each other–that’s what the Coyote Stories are about.” He has been teaching at Nk̓ ʷusm for 20 years. In his lifetime, he saw 100% fluency, to just 10%. He was engaging, entertaining, and shared teachings within the teachings. In our modern world, we are connected to our phones, even multi-tasking with beadwork, or other traditional activities, but he advised the packed room to, “Drop everything and look at the speaker.” 

Smallsalmon talked about things from our past that were buried in the culture, and understood through the language. “Hang on to our way, our language, everything. Our language is going away, our medicine is going away,” he added. He and his co-workers have fatigue while teaching the language, but a car ride and speaking in the language would reinvigorate his desire to keep teaching. “We are trying to teach our part, how to be happy. One of these days, you are going to get old. I used to see good, know your names, but I have a happy life because I still got the language, I got to teach the language as much as I could. 

Dustin Whitford of the Chippewa Cree at Rocky Boy was in attendance, though not of the Salish language family. He said that they have lost 40 first language speakers since COVID first began. He came to learn and wake up the languages, “Our languages are spirits–spirits don’t die. They just fell asleep, we need to wake them up.” 

Wednesday night, there were youth and adult division competitions for karaoke. It was a different tract of the conference and very entertaining after dinner. It was upcoming, upbeat, and should be up for the NAMMY’s. There were all-time greats: Your Cheatin’ Heart, Last Dance, Shallow, At Last, Suspicious Minds and many more. The slow acquisition of their language made it possible for these speakers to share creatively what they have learned, the distance they have made and the time they have spent. The adult division can be seen on facebook under #celebratingsalish2023. 

The depth and breadth of the work being done to save our languages and our ways of life are being undertaken every day in classrooms, via zoom, on the land, with vocabulary words, verb conjugations, in lives that these teachers and learners are making ordinary again.

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