Salish language taught at Tulalip culture camp

By Bill Sheets
Tulalip, Washington (AP) August 2010

Stan Jones, 84, remembers only a smattering of words and phrases of the language he heard his grandmother speak many years ago.

One of those phrases is a prayer that Jones, a longtime Tulalip tribal leader, offers at ceremonial events.

“I pray our language will come back,” he said, half-kidding.

That prayer is slowly coming true.

Jones looked around the Kenny Moses Building on Tulalip Bay last week and saw dozens of tribal children learning words and phrases in Lushootseed, the original language spoken by Salish tribes in the Puget Sound basin.

The children were split into groups at an annual camp in which they learn the language and culture through songs, drawing, painting, weaving, an old printing press and even a Nintendo DSI.

“I’m really proud of them doing that,” Jones said. “It’s just great.”

The camp is in its 15th year. About 200 children ages 5 through 12 sign up for the camp each year, said Natosha Gobin, a language teacher for the tribes.

Many of the children also learn the language at school or in informal groups, but the camp adds an element of fun that keeps the kids interested, tribal officials say.

“It’s really inspiring to see a lot of our young kids, how they just soak it in,” Gobin said.

Donovan Hamilton, 12, said he likes painting the best.

“It’s just really fun to keep coming,” said Donovan, who this week attended the camp for the third straight year.

At the end of each week-long camp, the children stage a play in which lines are delivered both in English and Lushootseed.

Some of the kids don’t attend the schools where the language is taught and this is their only opportunity to learn, Gobin said.

The language was nearly wiped out from 1880 to 1932, when Indian children were sent to boarding schools where they were reprimanded for speaking their traditional language or practicing their culture in any way.

Jones was only 4 years old when the Tulalip boarding school was closed. But at age 9 he fell ill and was sent to a hospital in Tacoma, a city where much of the cultural re-education practiced at the schools was continued.

He remembers how children there were punished for speaking Lushootseed.

“Soap in the mouth,” he said.

In the 1960s, Thomas Hess, a University of Washington linguistics professor, applied symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to the previously unwritten Lushootseed language, said Dave Sienko, a Lushootseed media director for the Tulalip Tribes. The language has 47 written characters, Sienko said. The language has slowly made a comeback among local tribes since the ‘60s.

Hess had help from Vi Hilbert, an Upper Skagit tribal member. Hess died last year, Hilbert in 2008.

It’s not known how many people on the reservation speak Lushootseed, Gobin said. That’s an estimate the Tulalip Tribes hope to develop in coming years, she said.

The tribes now employ 12 people devoted to researching and teaching Lushootseed, according to tribal spokeswoman Mytyl Hernandez. The language is taught at several schools on the reservation. Lushootseed videos also show on the tribes’ website and its cable station, KANU-TV.

At the camp, Tony Hatch, a former tribal board member, combined geography and Lushootseed in having the kids draw maps of the reservation.

On the map, he had the children write the Lushootseed version of Tulalip, which translates to “far, towards the bottom.”

The name is a directive for canoe paddlers to get past a sand bar to reach the village at the south end of Tulalip Bay, Hatch said. They have to go far into the bay and then toward the bottom.

Learning the name of their home is one way to help children know their heritage, Hatch said.

“When they get older they’ll go, ‘Click, I remember that,”’ he said.