Colleges and universities are helping to keep indigenous languages from dying out by informally offering the languages on campus or awarding college credit to students who can demonstrate proficiency.
When Alyssa Johnston and members of her tribe speak to one another in Quinault, they are often moved to tears by the knowledge that, at the turn of the century, the language was all but dead.
The last person who spoke fluent Quinault passed away in 1996. By using recordings of those who spoke the language in the 1960s, a handful of people in the Olympic Peninsula tribe are slowly and painstakingly piecing it back together — and teaching it to a new generation.
Last year, Johnston was the first person in recent memory to earn a world-language credit at the University of Washington by showing she had achieved “intermediate low-level proficiency” in that language.
Listen to Lushootseed
Listen to Upper Skagit author, teacher and linguist Vi Hilbert speaking Lushootseed on this website maintained by the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives: http://bela.music.washington.edu/ethno/hilbert/voicesVideo.html
The Tulalip Tribes also maintain a website of Lushootseed phrases at http://www.tulaliplushootseed.com/Phrase2.html
“It’s everything to me,” Johnston said of the importance of reviving her tribe’s native tongue. “Language is culture,” she said, and the tribe “right now is literally making history” by bringing it back.
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That history is also being written on the UW’s Seattle campus.
Every two weeks, two separate groups gather around a table in one building or another to practice one of two indigenous languages: Southern Lushootseed, the common tongue of the Native American tribes that lived in this region, and Hawaiian, the native language of the indigenous people of Hawaii.
Chris Teuton, chair of American Indian Studies at the UW, hopes students eventually will be able to learn both those languages in for-credit courses, joining the 55 other languages already taught by the university.
In the meantime, the informal classes are a labor of love for the volunteers who teach them. Nancy Jo Bob, a member of the Lummi Nation, and Tami Kay Hohn, of the Puyallup Tribe, both drive up from Auburn every month to offer several hours of language instruction, using a system they devised that helps students think and speak in complete sentences from the outset.
Lushootseed was revived by Upper Skagit author, teacher and linguist Vi Hilbert, who died in 2008 at the age of 90. Hilbert taught Lushootseed for credit at the UW until her retirement in 1988, and it has been taught intermittently at the university since then, along with Navajo and Yakama.
Lushootseed’s sentence structure is different from English, and includes sounds that don’t exist in English.
“It’s like my tongue is tap-dancing,” one speaker marveled during a recent language table session.
Sentences start with a verb, rather than a subject, and the form the verb takes, gives information about the manner and time of action, said UW English Professor Colette Moore, who is taking part in the language table.
“By the time a speaker gets to the subject in a Lushootseed sentence,” she said, “he or she has already given a lot of other information.”
The language’s history in the Puget Sound area dates back thousands of years. English, in contrast, has been spoken around here for fewer than 250.
“Sometimes it can be a perspective shift for students to see English as an immigrant language,” Moore added, “but, of course, it is.”
America’s past is threaded with a long, ugly history of white settlers separating Native Americans from their languages and cultures. In the 1900s, many Native American children were sent to boarding schools, where they were forced to speak only English.
Johnston, of the Quinault tribe, says her grandfather spoke the language, and her mother asked him to teach it to her. But he refused — the older generation feared their children wouldn’t be successful if they spoke a Native American language, she said.
“By revitalizing languages, that’s part of the healing process,” said Teuton, who is Cherokee and began learning that language at the University of North Carolina, where he taught before he came to the UW. “We are trying to recover from that colonial history.”
Native American knowledge, he said, “is really grounded in our language — the grounding of stories, our storytelling traditions, our words for the natural world, words that describe our social relations.”
Language is also a vital cultural connection for many Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, said Manuhuia Barcham, a UW lecturer who helped organize the Hawaiian language table. Barcham hopes to also start one for Samoan and Chamorro, which is spoken in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Both Pacific Islander and Native American populations have low levels of enrollment in higher education, and part of the goal of teaching languages is to make the UW “a more open and friendly space for our youth and our community,” he said.
Among the state’s other higher-education institutions, Lushootseed has been taught at Pacific Lutheran University and at the UW Tacoma, as part of a summer institute. Wenatchee Valley College in Omak teaches Salish; the Northwest Indian College in Bellingham teaches Native American languages.
Johnston learned Quinault from Cosette Terry-itewaste, a linguist who is her tribe’s most fluent speaker, and who was able to administer the test that allowed Johnston to get UW credit for knowing that language.
The UW requires entering students to have completed two years of a foreign language in high school, and to take a third quarter while in college — or to demonstrate that they have acquired “intermediate low-level proficiency” in a language other than English.
The university had to create a new way to test proficiency in languages that are not commonly taught.
“This provides an academic incentive and establishes it as an equal language, a world language,” said Russell Hugo, a linguist in the UW’s language learning center. “Hopefully more students can do this, so we can build stronger ties of support and recognition” for local indigenous languages.
Because she lives on the Olympic Peninsula and works full time with two young children at home, Johnston earned her undergraduate degree from the UW mostly online. She’s certified as a language apprentice, and she will be helping the Quinault tribe launch family language classes in January.
While some tribal members grew up knowing the Quinault words for colors and other nouns, these language classes aim to teach them how to have simple conversations.
“It’s amazing how it’s been almost lost,” Johnston said. “I can feel it getting back to normal, and that’s a really sacred thing.”
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 13, 2018, was corrected Jan. 13, 2018. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the tribe of Tami Kay Hohn.