A teacher of the native Yakama language hopes to keep culture alive in young people through its words.
HARRAH, Yakima County — Students in Ray Azure Jr.’s third-grade Ichiskíin class at Harrah Elementary School practiced their pronunciation with enthusiasm as they gave recent visitors a cheerful welcome.
“Shiyáx máytski,” they said in unison — “good morning” in the language spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
“When we talk Indian, we talk Ichiskíin,” Azure said as students nodded. Most know him as Rainbow, his given Native name.
This is Azure’s first year teaching Ichiskíin, also known as Sahaptin, at Harrah Elementary, but he’s well-known in the Lower Yakima Valley, having taught for 13 years. He worked at the Yakama Tribal School and has deep connections with Heritage University in Toppenish, where he studied the language in the 1990s.
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“We call him a celebrity on campus,” said Principal Rachel Leslie.
Azure wants students to understand Ichiskíin when tribal elders or family speak it, focusing on words that figure prominently in cultural traditions.
“Who’s been to a longhouse?” he asked; most raised their hands as they practiced saying the Ichiskíin word — káatnam.
As he pronounces the words, Azure reinforces local Yakama legends and stories along with the study of sacred foods so students can understand Yakama cultural views while learning the traditional language.
“The objective is to share key vocabulary of our sacred animals and plants that surround our beautiful land. In doing so, we connect with the surroundings we call home,” he said in a lesson overview.
“The elders say when we speak in our native language, we are closer to the Creator and nature. Long ago, we knew through our stories handed down that we connect through ceremony but more importantly, through our language.”
Azure greets every class at the door, shaking kids’ hands and occasionally offering a high-five (xwáami paxáat). He moves around the room as he points to words and tells stories with a sprinkling of life lessons.
“Everything we do is a circle to us. When we do good things, what’s going to happen in return? They come back to you,” Azure said.
Azure immerses students in the language. It’s all over the walls around them. Children cluster around tables with small pieces of paper noting numbers in Ichiskíin. Cards with the Ichiskíin names of colors dangle from the ceiling.
“The more and more and more you say it,” Azure said, the more it becomes part of daily life. “ … Our language, we learn by listening, by repeating.”
That’s a little more challenging with kindergartners, so he appeals to their curiosity and sense of wonder.
“I try to make it as fun as possible,” said Azure, who is creating a 100-page coloring book in Ichiskíin.
“What it does for our kids, it gives them an identity and pride.”
Though he didn’t learn the language “until I was older,” it’s been a lifelong lesson, Azure said, and he’s happy to keep it going in Harrah.
“I am honored to be able to share the knowledge I have accumulated with our elders and family,” he said.