At age 81, she is a cultural treasure at the Muckleshoot Reservation, even though she doesn't act like one and her outward demeanor can...

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AUBURN — At age 81, she is a cultural treasure at the Muckleshoot Reservation, even though she doesn’t act like one and her outward demeanor can sometimes seem a little gruff.

Ellen Williams is the last person alive here fluent in the tribal language, the last one who can fully understand and speak a language that, with its clicking and consonants with popping sounds, is so vastly different from English.

Throughout the 26 federally recognized tribes in this state that scenario is being repeated, with elders who are fluent dwindling to a handful in each tribe.

When she recently visited the Muckleshoot Tribal College’s native-language classroom, Williams was tearfully presented with a school T-shirt by Donna Starr, one of its two language instructors.

The Muckleshoot language

My name is Donna Starr” (:27)

Learn to count to 30, then by 10s (1:10)

Listen to a song (:46)

Starr became tearful because she feels so strongly about preserving the language, Whulshootseed, which she teaches to high-schoolers four days a week. Starr learned the language from her mother and then took classes in the language, rating her fluency as intermediate. But she has Williams to ask for correct pronunciations and meanings.

It’s not an easy language to learn. It was only oral, not written, until it was laboriously recorded in the 1960s and 1970s using international phonetic symbols. The original work was led by Thom Hess, a now-retired linguistics professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Williams was one of the 15 or so elder Native Americans in the project. She is a Snoqualmie but has lived with the Muckleshoots since her parents moved to Auburn in 1945.

Hess and two others are the authors of the Lushootseed dictionary that covers the Native American language that was spoken from Olympia to the Skagit River Valley. Whulshootseed is one of its varieties.

One of the motivations for Hess to spend years compiling the dictionary was his belief that a people’s culture cannot endure without its language.

“It’s theoretically possible, but I can’t think of an instance,” he said. “The language is the best mirror of the culture. Each of our words encapsulates our view of the world.”

For example, regional tribes had more than a dozen words for salmon and trout.

“Salmon were so very important to their way of life,” said Hess. “They would refer to the different species, sex, degree of maturity, times of the year they returned, whether they came back on schedule or out of schedule.”

Muckleshoot Tribe teens meet four days a week at the Muckleshoot Tribal College to learn Whulshootseed. Teacher Donna Starr, left, learned the language from her mother. She finishes the class with a drumming ceremony.

Language classes

At the tribal college, eight to 12 high-schoolers from the Virginia Cross Native Education Center show up for the language classes.

In tribes around the state, it is with such youths that there is hope for keeping the language alive. Often tribal leaders themselves cannot speak the native tongue.

For the Muckleshoots, Willard Bill Sr. is the tribal historian, but he cannot speak the language.

“My mother really understood the language, but then she went to boarding school, and, of course, the Indian language was not allowed. That’s when the cycle was broken,” he said.

From the 1870s until the 1930s, many Native American children were taken from their families and placed in federal boarding schools, had their hair cut, and were punished for speaking their native tongue.

Bill takes solace in hearing small success stories about preserving the language. He had heard that some kids were using it to talk on the playground, he said. “Day-to-day conversation. That’s really a breakthrough.”

Starr is a very patient teacher.

“They aren’t used to making all these sounds together,” she said of her students. “Nobody’s ears have heard the language. We’re waking it up, and waking it up carefully.”


Audrey Leach, left, studies the Whulshootseed language at the Muckleshoot Tribal College. Whulshootseed is one of the varieties of the Native American language Lushootseed.

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Faith Minthorn, 19, one of the students at the language class, is a registered Yakama, but her family background includes the Muckleshoots. Recently, Minthorn said, she was using Whulshootseed words with her 2-year-old nephew, “little words, like, ‘animals’ and ‘sit down,’ ‘stand up.’ ” That’s how she practices her language skills, she said. “I enjoy being part of bringing our culture back to life.”

During the class, Starr held up pictures with the tribal words under them: shoes, light, coyote, potato. “Remember, you make a kind of spitting sound,” Starr said of one pronunciation, “You really have to spit that ‘c’ out.”

An evolution

The language has had to evolve over the decades, even when there were many fluent speakers. “Refrigerator” is translated as “by means of making things cold.” “Stove” is translated as “making things with fire.”

There were about 20 distinct tribal languages in this state at the time white settlers arrived, with each village having its own dialect, said Hess. Now, he said, there are 15 languages left.

In 2003, the state’s Board of Education began a three-year pilot program awarding a First Peoples teacher certification for individuals fluent in a native language. So far, 13 certificates have been awarded.

But it’s a daunting task, even for the large Yakama Nation. Mavis Kindness, language program manager, estimated there might be 100 elders left out of the 9,700 tribal members who can understand and speak the native tongue.

“I am fluent for this time and age,” Kindness said. “As far as ancient words, there are some that I don’t understand or can even pronounce. They’ve become nonexistent in our daily conversation. Like preparing hand-tanned hides or gathering roots. The same thing with livestock, especially horses. Not too many tribal people own horses.”

And the high-schoolers, especially those attending public, not tribal schools, “are not crazy about learning the ‘old ways,’ as they call it,” said Kindness.

In the end, it comes down to priorities. The Muckleshoots, for example, are doing well financially because of income from their casino. Money has been spent on a child-care center, the tribal college, help for seniors and health care.

In the midst of all that is Williams, having lunch each day at the tribe’s Senior Center.

“A long time ago, everybody talked Indian,” she said. “After I’m gone, I don’t know. My kids don’t even talk Indian.”

Her friend Donna Starr politely disagreed.

“I have hope for the kids,” she said. “One of the parents saw me and they were laughing. Her daughter that takes my class asked her dad for money, but he didn’t know what she was saying. She was talking Whulshootseed.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or

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