In a “last ditch effort” to save tribal languages, a curriculum is being put in place to teach teachers how to teach on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The Tribal Language Program in the Confederated Tribes’ education department will replicate the system being used at the Salish School, where teachers are using immersion to teach children from infancy to third grade. That will require translation of the Salish curriculum into Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce.
Meanwhile, students at Nixyaawii Community School will learn only Umatilla this year. Thomas Morning Owl, Fred Hill and Mildred Quaempts, fluent in Umatilla, will instruct the high school students in that language for the next year. Currently, there are no fluent speakers in Walla Walla or Nez Perce that are proficient enough to teach.
Morning Owl heard about the program, which teaches Okanagan Salish, and made a day trip to experience it firsthand.
“It floored me. I was absolutely amazed,” he said. “From the time I got to the school until it ended they spoke in nothing but Okanagan Salish.”
Morning Owl started “snooping around” and learned that the Salish School had developed its curriculum around just one fluent speaker. The system trains teachers in a beginner, intermediate and advanced program with six books — one teaching book and one literature book for each step.
“It’s comparable to a curriculum presented as a secondary language such as Spanish, French or German,” said Morning Owl, who can speak all three.
What’s fascinating is that the Salish system was created by a college-level Spanish teacher and his wife, both of whom are non-Indian. The Okanagan program, which now has 17 fluent speakers who are available to teach, is working with as many as 30 children.
Modesta Minthorn, the current language program manager, said she probably will be the “first guinea pig” for teachers, but her main focus will be as coordinator to help the program achieve its goals.
“People think it would be easy, but there’s a lot of coordinating,” Minthorn said. “We’ve over-committed before. My number one task is that whatever comes up it doesn’t get in the way of what we’re focusing on this year.”
The Salish group came to the Umatilla Indian Reservation and shared how they built the program in a two-day workshop in late July. Because they believe so much in the program, Minthorn said, the curriculum and facility is being offered for practically free.
“This is going to require the language program to make a one-year commitment to see it through,” she said. “Everyone in the program is committed to it.”
The program is an effort to keep native languages alive.
“People really have to understand the critical level of our languages,” Minthorn said. “We need support from the community, of every individual, to save the languages.”
Damien Totus is learning Umatilla in order to teach it, and echoed the sentiment.
“Hopefully this is the missing link that can set us right,” he said. “It’s going to require a commitment from the tribes for a couple of years to learn what’s been lost for thousands of years. We have to have the community committed as a whole.”