Language Preservation on the Reservation

When I was a little girl my grandfather tried in vain to teach me his native tongue. He sat on the front stoop outside of my parent’s home for hours as he would point to the trees, the birds, the sky and earth speaking the words in Italian. His dialect was unique to the village in Italy where he was born. I never learned to master his language and when my grandfather stepped from this life into the eternal life, his Italian language and my heritage went with him, and I’ve regretted that ever since. When I heard about the Nkwusm School in Montana that is in the business of language preservation directly from the tongues of the elders in their community, I knew I had to share their story with the Yahoo community and the entire world.

There is a quote from the famous inspirational writing of Max Ehrmann who in 1927 penned the famous Desiderata poem, “Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

The “counsel of the years” plays an integral part in the lesson plans and the preservation of the Salish language at the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute. To understand the importance of these immersion language schools to the Indian people in America, I share with you that the Salish language is currently spoken by less than 50 people in the United States. Those 50 people are mostly elders in the tribe who are over the age of 75 years. According to the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute website, “There are no first language fluent Salish speakers under the age of 50.”

I interviewed a student at the school, 13-year-old Nicole Perry, and her guardian-grandmother, Esther Johnson. Nicole’s grandmother enrolled Nicole in the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute after she attended the head start program for just six months in the public sector. Esther shared with me,

“Nicole is a direct descendent of the Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana and I decided that I wanted her to be immersed in the Salish language because it was something that I never had when I attended public school. Nicole attends Nkwusm daily and receives instruction from Elders who are fluent in our native tongue and she is actually teaching me the language now. I am so proud of her and Nicole is already setting her sites on becoming a teacher to preserve our language for future generations.”

The Department of Health and Human Services awarded the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute a $912,000 grant in August of 2011 to continue the work they have begun at the school. Obtaining a grant in this amount from the federal government is no easy task and the Nkwusm School passed all of the stringent educational guidelines necessary to proceed on their mission to preserve the language.

Nicole shared with me that language lessons are not the only benefit of attending the Nkwusm School, “I learn new traditions of my people as well as new Salish words everyday to preserve our heritage. Our elders share stories and cultural traditions. For instance, I attended a summer camp and we learned about Camas and we dug a hole and prepared the bulb and then we ate the fruit at the end of the week. You know what watermelon tastes like, right? Well, Camas tastes just like that – juicy and sweet, I love it. Also, my teacher and elders are allowing me to mentor other students and help them with their studies. I guess that helped me to decide the importance of becoming a teacher myself and one day returning to my school so that we can preserve our Salish native tongue.” (Editorial note: Camassia a perennial plant and a necessary food staple for Native Americans).

For Tours & Information about the Nkwusm Salish Language School you can visit them on the web or call them at 406-726-5050. The Executive Director at the school, Tachini Pete, has produced a translation tool called the English to Salish Dictionary for all to freely use. The Salish Language School also has an English-Salish 2nd Edition Dictionary that was published in 2010 for sale if you would like to own a copy of this wonderful book.


Nkwusm Salish Language Institute

Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana taken from the Fort Belknap Indian Community website

Michele Starkey’s interview with Nicole Perry and Esther Johnson conducted on 12/1/2011 for Yahoo! Voices

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