Wash. Program Strives To Sustain Tribal Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 05, 2003 5 min read

The last two fluent speakers of the Makah tribal language died last year. Only 10 people, all over the age of 65, still speak Spokane fluently. The only skilled speakers of Lushootseed are elderly and frail, and can no longer take part in their tribe’s formal activities to pass on their language skills.

But some younger Native Americans in Washington state are working to reverse what they see as a depressing trend: the loss of American Indian languages. Having taken on the responsibility of becoming fluent in those languages, they are hoping that a pilot program approved last month by the Washington state board of education will help them expand language-recovery efforts in public schools.

The three-year pilot program—approved unanimously by the state board on Jan. 17—clarifies that the state’s tribes are in charge of selecting and training teachers of their languages and culture.

Under the program, Washington state’s 28 federally recognized tribes will train and recommend to the state board people they deem qualified to be teachers. The state will provide a “first peoples’ language/culture” certification or endorsement to those candidates, giving them equal status with teachers who are certified to teach other subjects in the public schools.

Previously, speakers of Indian languages could become certified only through conventional routes, such as through university programs. Otherwise, they could teach tribal languages in the public schools only under the supervision of certified teachers.

The new program was proposed by the First Peoples’ Language Committee of Washington State, a grassroots group of tribal elders, language educators, linguists, and university professors.

Members of the committee say they felt a sense of urgency to get more speakers of tribal languages into classrooms.

“We didn’t have time to take them out of our [tribal] language programs and put them in institutions to get a five-year certification,” said Suzi Wright, a linguist and program administrator for the Lushootseed-language program of the Tulalip tribes. Nearly 2,400 members of the seven Tulalip tribes live on a reservation located about 30 miles north of Seattle.

Formalizing Instruction

In approving such a program, Washington state is following the lead of Montana, which in 1995 launched a program in which that state’s seven Indian tribes select and train teachers who then are certified by the state in Native American language and culture. Montana now has 133 teachers with the certification.

Two years ago, the Oregon legislature passed a law that authorized a similar arrangement. And just last year, Idaho lawmakers approved legislation that permits teachers of tribal languages to teach in public schools without a college degree or certification.

In Montana, the certification program helped formalize language programs in public schools, said Joyce A. Silverthorne, the head of the tribal education department for the Salish-Kootenai tribes and a member of the Montana state board of education. Previously, she said, “there were people who were employed in schools and maybe they would do a language activity, but frequently it was during lunch or after school, or in the hallway.”

Now, she said, “we have a situation where the credibility of [tribal] language has been elevated.”

No one in Washington state suggests that the new certification program in itself will ensure the recovery of tribal languages.

“It opens the door,” said Larry Davis, the executive director of the state board of education. “It’s up to the tribes to see if they can work out an arrangement with local school districts.”

Some public schools on reservations in Washington state already have classes in tribal languages. Tribal members say they hope the pilot program will give them extra political leverage to seek more access to children in public schools, particularly on reservations, and public money to pay for language teachers.

The Spokane tribe, for example, supports three teachers to conduct classes in the tribal language to about 300 K-5 pupils at the Wellpinit School on the Spokane reservation.

The students receive an hour of language instruction each week, an amount that is too small, said Marsha Wynecoop, the language-program manager for the tribe. The program needs to be expanded and strengthened, she said. For example, she’d like to see the Wellpinit school system pay language teachers’ salaries.

Reid Riedlinger, the superintendent of the 445-student Wellpinit district, said the system isn’t opposed to setting up a budget for the teaching of Spokane or paying teachers, but would need to see a curriculum and materials first.

“We can’t provide a budget until we know what we’re paying for,” he said. “We’ve never received a formal plan. That’s a process from the tribe.”

‘Time Is of the Essence’

Meanwhile, the Tulalip tribes have five teachers teaching Lushootseed, their tribal language, to 80 of the 264 children at Tulalip Elementary School, located on their reservation. Students receive a half-hour or more of instruction four days a week.

Toby Langen, an honorary member of the Tulalip tribes and the director of the Lushootseed-language program, said tribal members are hoping the pilot program will help them gain even more access to students. She added, though, that such an arrangement would mean tribal-language teachers would have to teach some academic content in the Lushootseed language.

“There is a lot of pressure on the teachers and students to get ready for these periodic tests,” Ms. Langen said. “We can’t ask for a lot of time out of the day unless we teach some of the content.”

Currently, the Tulalip tribes don’t have enough trained teachers to teach Lushootseed at the other elementary school on their reservation. Because all the fluent speakers of Lushootseed are frail, the language program uses teachers who are semi-fluent in addition to archives of audio recordings of native speakers.

Maria Pascua, a member of the Makah tribe, teaches an elective class in Makah at Neah Bay High School, which sits on its own plot of public land on the Makah reservation in northwest Washington.

She’s paid as a part-time teacher by the school. She became certified as a K-8 teacher through a university and then pushed the state to give her an endorsement as a teacher of Makah after she took courses equivalent to what a teacher of a foreign language was required to take.

Ms. Pascua sees it as fortunate that people who seek certification to teach Makah under the new program won’t have to jump through as many hoops as she did to teach their tribal language.

“With the state that most of our native languages are in, time is of the essence—big time,” she said.

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