Pendleton Early Learning Center teacher Sarah Yoshioka gathered her class at the front of the room before ceding the floor to Shawndine Jones and Mildred Quaempts.
Jones, the center’s heritage language teacher, and Quaempts, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation language coordinator, started the class with the Umatilla afternoon greeting — niix pachwy.
“Niix pachwy!” more than a dozen kindergartners chanted back at them.
Four days a week, Jones and two CTUIR volunteers, Quaempts and Linda Sampson, visit each classroom and teach the kids both Umatilla language and culture through the Walk to Language program.
In its first year, the program has not only received praise from the Pendleton School District and the CTUIR, but also Gov. Kate Brown, who observed a lesson when she toured the early learning center in March.
On Thursday afternoon, it was just Jones and Quaempts, who were teaching the children a lesson on salmon.
After teaching students the Umatilla names for the various varieties of salmon like chinook (tkwinat), coho (sinux) and sockeye (kalux), the teachers gave students cotton balls scented with chocolate or cinnamon and asked them to find a similar scent in the classroom, evoking the way salmon use their sense of smell to find the stream where they were born to spawn.
Jones and Quaempts wrapped the lesson by handing out crackers with salmon and a salmon-themed activity book published by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
As the students munched on their snacks and colored in the books, Quaempts recalled how different the district approached American Indian language and culture when she was a student at the early learning center, then known as Hawthorne Elementary School.
Quaempts remembered her teacher correcting her vociferously on her first day of school, making her use her American name instead of her Indian one.
Quaempts said those memories of feeling alone makes her honored to teach the next generation in a more inclusive way.
Walk to Language may play a part in keeping the Umatilla language alive.
The two other languages of the tribes that belong to the CTUIR — Walla Walla and Cayuse — have died out and only a handful of native Umatilla speakers remain.
Quaempts said its important for the non-Native students as well.
She said white farmers and ranchers used to learn Umatilla words and phrases to speak with their Indian neighbors, and teaching non-tribal members could similarly expand their cultural understanding.
The children seem to be retaining the Umatilla vocabulary and stoking their cultural curiosity.
Whenever a student runs into Quaempts in the community, they excitedly greet her with a “Niix pachwy,” or its morning or evening equivalent, and begin asking her about other words.
Early learning center faculty say the kids pick up on the language faster than the adults.
“It’s the highlight of their week,” teacher Joshua McGraw said.
Topics range from lessons on First Foods or winter words to teaching the kids Umatilla translations of Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” and “The Dancing Christmas Tree,” but the teachers all agreed that Walk to Language was a benefit to their classroom.
As Walk to Language winds down its first year, Quaempts said she’s already committed to coming back next year to continue the lessons.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.