Saving the Salish Language

By Beacon Staff

Fewer than 50 people are believed to speak Salish fluently on the Flathead Indian Reservation and most of them are in their 70s, leaving a deeply uncertain future for the language in Northwest Montana.

With that in mind, Rosie Matt, Chaney Bell and Echo Brown have started up the Salish Institute, a grassroots movement dedicated to improving the “health, culture, education and environment of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people.”

The institute, a nonprofit organization based out of St. Ignatius, has held three community meetings since October and will have more in the future. Though the gatherings are open to discussion on any community issue, attendees have made clear that a primary concern is keeping the Salish language alive, Matt said.

The institute, which also hosts weekly Salish language choir practices for youths, is developing partnerships with other organizations in the hopes of creating a network that can achieve community-wide goals.

“Here on the reservation we’re at a critical point in order to save our language,” Matt said.

The Salish Institute joins other organizations on the reservation that provide resources for language learning, including the Nkwusm language school and Salish Kootenai College. The People’s Center in Pablo is also starting classes in January, according to the center’s program manager, Lucy Vanderburg, a longtime teacher and advocate of language as a vital link to one’s heritage.

“It’s always on my agenda to encourage people to learn the language,” she said. “It’s always been one of my passions to teach the language.”

Vanderburg is one of the reservation’s remaining fluent Salish speakers. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, she said her family spoke Salish in their home, as did many other people throughout the community.

“I can remember going to the post office or the grocery store with my mom, and you’d run into somebody you knew and they spoke the language,” she said. “I guess I always thought it would be around.”

Both the Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille traditionally spoke dialects of Salish, sharing a common language family with other tribes in the Northwest. The third tribe that makes up the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation is the Kootenai, which speaks its own language.

Matt and Vanderburg encourage Kootenai speakers to form their own language programs. Vanderburg hopes to have Kootenai instructors teach courses at the People’s Center, while Matt said she knows of somebody trying to form a grassroots Kootenai language group.

“We have been asked, ‘Why aren’t you including the Kootenai?’” Matt said. “We just want to focus on this language family and cultural heritage, but we would love someone to do this for Kootenai.”

Matt said she has gotten to know Bell and Brown, her fellow Salish Institute founders, through years of working together at different language and cultural programs. They decided the reservation could use an organization that takes a “holistic approach to learning culture,” one that carefully considers factors such as history, environment and language.

The nonprofit’s first three meetings have been well attended, Matt said, and she expects them to grow in the future.

“The idea is to be inclusive as possible,” Matt said. “Everyone is welcome. Everyone who comes to the meetings is a part of the institute.”

Even with the Nkwusm school, Salish Kootenai College and adult language classes taught around the reservation, Matt said “we haven’t been able to create new fluent speakers.” The elders who are fluent, Matt said, increasingly lack the energy to dedicate much time to teaching language. Matt doesn’t want the reservation to lose all Salish fluency once the elders are no longer around.

“We feel that we don’t have a lot of time because those elders are old,” she said.

Despite the dearth of fluency, Vanderburg said “people are trying to learn it and I applaud them for trying.” Years ago when Vanderburg worked on a cultural committee, she was in frequent contact with her elders, who spoke passionately of language’s cultural importance. Even if those elders have passed, their message still resonates.

“I think one of the things that I learned with working with those elders is that you have to know your language to know your true culture,” Vanderburg said. “That was one of their hopes and dreams – that would the language would stay alive.”

For information on Nkwusm, visit www.salishworld.com or call (406) 726-5050. To reach the People’s Center, visit www.peoplescenter.org or call (406) 883-5344. The Salish Institute can be reached by phone at (406) 210-2502 or found online at www.thesalishinstitute.com.