Monday, June 08, 2009

NAT: Salish Funerals

Qlispe: A Word for Home

Salish isn’t just a language of words and grammar. It’s a bridge between generations — a link to culture and identity — and for the Kalispel, it’s dangerously close to being lost forever.

The Pacific Northwest Inlander

The one place you can reliably go to hear Salish spoken is a funeral. Old aunties and grandmothers gather to talk of the dead and sing over their bodies. So it was last Saturday during a ceremony for Sue Finley, a matriarch of the Kalispel Tribe. Family and friends came from as far away as Montana to place a headstone on Finley’s grave in a little cemetery overlooking the Pend Oreille River and the mountains beyond. Afterward, Finley’s family gave away her possessions and hosted a feast in her honor.

Tribal members Francis Cullooyah and JR Bluff brought out the big hide drum and launched into an honor song for Finley in Salish, or “the language,” as they call it. A few others joined in.

There is a certain irony that Salish is often relegated to funeral services — because the language itself is in danger of dying. It’s more than just the language, though: Salish connects the Kalispel to their culture and their identity.

Finley, who died in March 2008, was among the dwindling number of elders who spoke qlispe (“kully-speh”) as a first language, and she was a strong advocate for adopting modern teaching methods to keep it alive. Thanks to video and audio recording — and a sense of urgency — a tribal language program that filled her final years is keeping Finley’s voice alive on computer disc.

But the language is still in jeopardy. “There are only four or five elders left who can talk it,” JR says. “We ask that the elders keep talking to us, we need to hear it. And if we don’t speak so well at first, have patience with us.”

Vicky Bowman, who is now studying the language, adds, “When I do speak the language, I feel like a part of my culture, like I belong to a people — to my people.”

A Few Words in Kalispel

One Nko’o
Two Usel
Three Tseles
Four Mos
Five Tsil
Man Skaltumiax
Woman Simmu’em
Sun Spukani
Moon Saka’am
Water Se’uliq
Good morning X.est-skwekwst
Thank you Lem-lmtsh

‘This Is Grim’
All around the interior Northwest, elders like Finley, who grew up speaking Salish in the home, are dying. Bowman says her mother, Louise, is probably the eldest fluent speaker now, a member of a small group that includes Cullooyah and JR’s dad, Stan Bluff.

Among the Coeur d’Alene, there are said to be two fluent speakers. Felix Aripa, the most visible of these, is tireless in his outreach, but he is 86.

Six fluent speakers are said to remain among the Spokane. The youngest of these is 72.

There may soon be an obituary that reads: “The language of the Schitsu’umsh [the Coeur d’Alene] died today in a field of camas bulbs. … It was 10,000 years old.” Or one that says, “The final words of the Spukani were last seen standup riding on the ghost of a giant chinook salmon as it jumped into the mists of the pounding Spokane Falls, formerly the center of the universe.…”

Even tribes that have a large number of fluent speakers are being hard hit.

“The Okanagan Nation in Canada lost 13 speakers,” says Chris Parkin, a former Spokane high school Spanish teacher who has been working on efforts to preserve Salish dialects.

“Thirteen in the last year?” someone asks.

“This winter,” Parkin says. “And they lost another semi-fluent speaker Saturday [May16]. That’s about 8 percent of the speakers. This is grim.”

The ‘Indian’ Thing
Like many Indians of his generation, JR Bluff, 44, speaks English as his first language and left the reservation — not by force to boarding schools or federal relocation schemes, but for college and a career.

He graduated 20 years ago from the University of Montana with a degree in forestry and worked 12 years as a forester for the Spokane Tribe. He later worked for the Kalispel tribal fish hatchery. JR, a high school athlete and outdoorsy guy, also began coaching basketball for Wellpinit High School and later at his alma mater, Cusick. In 2005, his team won the school’s first girls’ State B basketball championship.

He is still trim and compactly muscled, with big, fluid hands from a life spent working outdoors. He says hearing Salish spoken at funerals eventually led him on a path to exploring what it means to be a Kalispel Indian.

“Our situation with this tribe is we were pretty much in the white man’s world. We didn’t have our own people,” he says.

JR recounts that after the Sandpoint Treaty of 1887, the small group of Kalispel from the Usk area simply stayed right where they were. Most other Indians from Kalispel, Kootenai, Pend Oreille, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane were shifted off to the Flathead Reservation or to Plummer or Wellpinit.

The valley that runs up from Newport to Ione and Metaline Falls was off the beaten path, didn’t have much to offer settlers and remains sparsely populated by Indians and whites to this day.

“It wasn’t until the early 1900s that somebody said, ‘Hey! There’s still Indians over at Usk,’” JR says with a laugh.

The Kalispel didn’t get their 4,600-acre reservation until the 1930s, and even a generation ago, in the mid-1960s, the rez had one telephone and the average annual income was $1,400.

JR, afer years away from home, discovered his own identity at funerals. “That was Indian stuff. That was the Indian thing,” he says. He throws a fist into a palm to show how it suddenly hit him: “The hymns — boom! — it made you feel the connection that there was another world. There’s the sweat lodge, there’s the powwow, there’s the drum. Now I’m ready for it,” he says.

In the mysterious way of things, JR was tapped by elder Francis Cullooyah to be his assistant in the tribe’s culture office. Cullooyah has been a lion in preserving elements of Kalispel culture, and was first to start teaching the language.
Cullooyah says his grandfather, Joe Blackbear, foresaw the disappearing culture.

“I was about 11 or 12 when he told me one time, ‘You are going to be all alone one day. You are going to be the only speaker left. And it almost came true,’” Cullooyah says.

“Francis was it,” JR says. “People don’t think we dance, but we do. All of a sudden we started a drum group and we drum — we never drummed from here. Francis was the dancer, and now his kids dance and now I dance. It was always here. And now we are going to incorporate language into all that stuff.”

Race Against Time
All the regional tribes teach Salish and have been for decades on some reservations.

But here’s the thing, Chris Parkin says: When the Interior Salish-speaking tribes gather — as they did at last month’s Celebrating Salish conference at Spokane Falls Community College — they don’t ask, “How many new speakers do you have this year?” Parkin says. “That’s not the standard. What everybody talks about when they get together is: ‘How many did you lose this year?’”

Parkin was busily teaching Spanish at Gonzaga Prep until one day, several years ago, his wife asked him a question.

Parkin’s wife, singer LaRae Wiley, was looking for a way to reconnect with her heritage as a member of the Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She was teaching in the Head Start program on the Spokane Reservation and began taking Salish lessons.

Her progress seemed far slower than Parkin’s high schoolers at G-Prep. “His kids were speaking to him [in Spanish] after graduation, and I said, ‘Hey, how are you getting them to do that?’” Wiley says.

Well, I have all these resources, Parkin told her.

Parkin was later asked to master a CD of Spokane elder Pauline Flett singing and telling stories, and it was then that he began offering suggestions about different teaching methods and the need for a structured curriculum — suggestions not always well received.

“I am a rather blunt character, but let me just preface that I have nothing but the highest regard for the people who took LaRae in, and who took me in, and who gave us a place at the table,” he says. “But nobody had a plan.”

There are two significant factors that make learning Salish tougher than learning Spanish or French. One had to do with the approach of having elders teach — each with their own approach — where lessons often resulted in a list of words, Parkin says.
The other was personal: Indians didn’t just lose their language; it was stripped from them. Often with violence and shame.

“I’ve met elders who have scars on their hands from being hit with rulers,” Wiley says. “Even now, when they speak they get that emotional jolt of fear. Because of boarding schools and other history, there is a lot of emotional stuff tangled up in this.”
Parkin adds, “The language calls up another time, which has some good and powerful things, but also is painful. There are good reasons why it’s not simple and straightforward.”

The language itself is in painful shape, he and Wiley say, with essentially a handful of speakers.

“It is on a fine edge because we are running out of time, basically,” Wiley says.

Parkin cites nascent language programs on some reservations, inefficient programs on others, and plenty of back-biting over who can teach it and how. Can whites teach it? Who can learn it? What’s the best way?

“This is a tough, tough business,” Parkin says. “Are you looking for a happy, feel-good Indian story? Because this isn’t. This is gut-wrenching. There are days I think we are going to fail.”

Wiley and Parkin soon hooked up with like-minded souls who are working to keep Salish alive at the Paul Creek Language Association in British Columbia. They have recently created a spin-off in the United States, the Center for Interior Salish, to create materials and lesson plans and train teachers.

The Kalispel, worried by the deaths of fluent speakers — from 25 or 30 two decades ago to four or five now – were looking for a fresh approach. Francis Cullooyah had taken up the language baton about 10 years ago. Three years ago, he handed reins to JR, who promptly sought out Parkin for lunch and a long talk.

The tribe has been busy ever since.

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