A young performer participates in a play

The concept of being born-again is ever-present when you get hundreds of Salish language learners and fluent speakers together. When you immerse yourself into the language, positive things happen to you, no matter what place you’re at in life; it just seems to be the nature of the challenge. We call it, ‘medicine.’ And even the oldest learners consider themselves babies in the language, due to their levels of fluency.

The humbling sensation is remarkable when you think about it, really. So let’s take you to the place where language convenes.

For one three-day span per year, Northern Quest Resort & Casino plays host to more ‘loots’ and ‘kees’ than anywhere on the planet. For those of you early Salish language learners, like myself, that’s no and yes—the two words our council members use most when making decisions that impact the Colville Tribes.

The energy for language preservation cannot be understated at the Celebrating Salish Conference. Within five minutes, a man from the Okanagan Tribe saw me writing on my computer and began pitching me an idea for Salish coloring books, wondering how I could help him achieve his dream. If it feels desperate, it’s because—for the most part—it is. Salish dialects are in dire need of revitalization, and the groups that devoutly represents their respective tribes—from Washington, Idaho, Montana, Canada and beyond—are the heroes behind its revival. The conference is the annual language gathering between several tribes in which initiatives—and new ideas—are shared.

“Every one of our tribes, we have a different situation,” conference organizer J.R. Bluff said. “We have a good core, with the Colvilles, Spokanes, Kalispels, Kootenais and Flatheads. We all have that common need.”

It’s a who’s who of legends in language; many of which, the tribal elders who are among of the final generation of fluent speakers. America did its best to "kill the Indian, save the man." Boarding schools, trade schools, adoption to non-Indian families; there were a number of assimilation tactics that resulted in massive culture and language loss. Somehow, these select few slipped through the cracks.

“We always bring together the shakers and the movers,” Bluff said. “It’s kind of like you bring the guys with the ‘We believe’ attitude, it feeds us all. It’s just that whole community that we’re trying to create. That’s what this conference is about.”

Now, there is another generation of people who are working (what seems like) around the clock to improve language learning at ever level. Take Salish School of Spokane teacher Julie Simpson, for instance. She joined a fitness club recently and was learning new exercises. She thought it would be fun to bring one which involves crawling on all fours, which she calls the ‘skumhist,’ or bear exercise. “It works all of your body muscles,” she said.

Shelly Boyd is a powerful figure in the revitalization effort in Inchelium, where she says one fluent speaker exists.

“The main thing we want to do is empower people to leave English behind,” Boyd said. “We are unique in the fact that, our focus isn’t babies and children, our focus is adults. The focus is to train young people who are of child-bearing age.”

These examples were among many good ones this year in Airway Heights.


Colville tribal member Julie Simpson is a teacher at Salish School of Spokane. She presented, "How to Survive an ECEAP/Pre-K Immersion Class," this afternoon, where she explained the challenges of working for an immersion school and following the state's early childhood education guidelines. One instance where the school elected not to follow them—resulting in a docking of points, she said—was captikw, or Coyote Stories. "The state said we can't use 'em, they're too violent," she said. "We were like, 'Oh no, we're using 'em.' We get docked for it every time, but we don’t care what they say. If we don’t [educate with these stories] it goes against our goal." Simpson, from Inchelium, said she has found a new passion in her life: her 17 students. “Those kids: I am their stemtima, I am their grandma, I am their mom," she said. "I love those kids. They are my life. They keep me grounded.”


On behalf of the Inchelium Childcare Center, Melissa Signor and Destiny Petty presented, “Language for Little Ones.” They both work in the baby room, with children ages 0-3, with the goal of helping the children to become bilingual, speaking both Salish and English. Petty, a tribal descendant, said working with the language helped her identify with who she and her children were, despite having a light complexion. “The language is important for me,” Petty said. “My family looks so different than me. They're dark and enrolled members. It really hurt me for a long time. This language is bringing back to me [a sense of], 'You can’t tell me who I am.' It’s also telling my children who they are and to teach them about the land. It means a whole lot to me to feel like I belong where I am." Signor, who entered language learning five years ago when she was dealing with problems, said learning language is her medicine. She is still reeling from the loss of her youngest sister in January. She said that learning the language has gained her admiration from children to elders. "I feel like everyone’s looking up to us," Signor said. "My grandparents who look up to us. They say, 'I wish I knew what you were saying.' That’s what I do. I bring it home to my family. At home don’t be afraid to speak it to your family."


Presenting "Impassionate Nxa-amciners" was Robert "Cubby" Lonebear, who left the University of New Mexico to try to help save the Moses-Columbia language, which had just one fluent speaker remaining on the Colville Reservation. The Cheyenne/Colville Indian had made beadworks along the way that symbolize his journey, which started with learning Okanagan Salish. He's now beginning to teach the Moses-Columbia (nxampcin) language in Inchelium. 


Pend d’Oreille elder Pat Pierre took the microphone after several language updates from throughout the region to say, “The voice of the Indian people is coming back, from all four directions. Within the language is wisdom. If you learn a word a day, you have that many more words at the end of the year. One day, we’re all going to know the language. We’re all going to be holding conversations in our language." He noted his Tribe now has an online dictionary.

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