Northwest Tribe Struggles to Revive Its Language
Project a Challenge for Klallam, Others as Native Speakers Age

Timothy Montler, a linguist with the University of North Texas, spends hours translating stories with Bea Charles and Adeline Smith, right, from their native language of Klallam. (Photos Robert E. Pierre -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2003; Page A03


Bea Charles was among the first generation of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe to attend public school, where she was forbidden to speak her native language. Breaking the rule meant a rap across the knuckles or worse, and put-downs such as, "You sound like you have a mouth full of mush."

Tired of the beatings and the ridicule, Charles began speaking English even at home, prompting her great-grandfather to ask, "Have you become white?"

Now those memories have inspired Charles, who is 83, to sit for hours at a folding table, reviewing prefixes and suffixes, transitive and intransitive verbs and passive and active voices. Although she hated school when she was young, she isn't complaining now, because her work is central to a decade-old project to revive -- and, for the first time, write down -- the Klallam language she grew up speaking.

"Our language is part of us, our way of life," Charles said. "It's who we are. If we don't save the language, we've lost a part of us."

The memory of tribal elders such as Charles, guided by a professional linguist, has resulted in Klallam video games, lessons on CD-ROM and, for the past four years, "heritage" language classes at Port Angeles High School. What's happening here on the Olympic Peninsula is just one of several efforts nationwide to document, and create new speakers of, scores of indigenous languages that are facing extinction.

After a century of open hostility toward these languages, the federal government is helping to foot the bill. But the task is daunting: Of about 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, about 20 are being passed on to another generation. The pressure to converse in English, the worldwide language of commerce, also isn't abating.

But to some, losing ancient languages is no sign of progress.

"A language is an emblem of social identity," said linguist Timothy Montler, who has devoted much of the past decade to preserving the language of the Klallam. "It represents many generations of complex social structures and interactions. It's a shame to let something as beautiful and complicated as a human language disappear."

The federal government tried to make native languages disappear starting in the 19th century. "In the difference of our language today lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted," a federal commission on Indian affairs concluded in 1868. "Through the sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought."

This policy of assimilation was enforced, often brutally, at government-run boarding schools where native children were sent to receive religious indoctrination and learn the language and culture of white people. It wasn't officially reversed until 1990, when Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, which declared that Indians had a right to "use, practice and develop Native Languages."

But the change -- along with millions of federal dollars to support language preservation -- may have come too late.

In this northwest corner of Washington, the Lummi have just one remaining speaker. The last fluent speaker of Makah died in August at age 100. As far as anyone can tell, there are only three or four remaining speakers of Klallam, which is one of the large family of Salish languages that were once prevalent in the upper Northwest and British Columbia.

Even in California, which has speakers or semi-speakers of about 50 indigenous languages, the future seems grim.

"The trouble is that there is not an indigenous language where children are learning, and all the fluent speakers are over 60," said Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has written books and essays about California languages. "All of them are in their last stages of existence unless something is done. Documenting the language is absolutely vital because . . . even when trying to revitalize them, you're not able to produce speakers as fast as speakers are dying."

Leaders of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, with 950 members, saw the deterioration firsthand.

Once the tribe populated thriving villages on the Canadian and U.S. sides of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Now, it is spread across four reservations, including one in Canada. The only known speakers of Klallam live on this reservation outside Port Angeles. Created in the 1960s, it spans 1,000 acres and houses about 950 people. There is an enormous sense here, as on many reservations, of what has been lost: fishing rights, culture, language. There also are continuous struggles against alcoholism, diabetes and, among Klallam youth, poor achievement in the public schools.

The resentment is palpable. Many tribal members mention an incident last year in which a teenager and two 11-year-olds ended up in handcuffs after one of them threw an empty plastic soda bottle toward a garbage can on a school bus and hit the driver instead. The handcuffing was an example, many believe, of how the larger society perceives people of Native American descent as inferior.

"We're invisible," said Gloria Rapoza, 76, who grew up on the reservation but later moved away. "People think we live in teepees."

Building pride in the language and tribal customs, such as basket weaving and canoe making, is a way to regain a portion of what has been lost, tribal leaders said. That's why they contacted Montler, the linguist, in 1992. While working on his doctoral thesis a decade earlier, Montler had approached the tribe for help in documenting their language but had been turned away.

"There wasn't a sense of urgency, and the people weren't so old," said Montler, 53, who teaches at the University of North Texas.

For a decade, Montler has spent weeks at a time, sometimes entire summers away from his family in Texas, sitting with the elders, translating old stories and jotting down new words. But one of the hardest parts of the job has been creating a written record for a language that had always been oral.

"At first it was hard to accept that it was going to be written, because it was always an oral tradition," said Linda Laungayan, 42, one of five cultural specialists the tribe has hired to learn the language and spread it to others.

But with so few Klallam speakers, there was no other choice.

Although much of the writing system is based on the Roman alphabet, Montler said, the language has more variations on the quality of vowel sounds and many more consonants. There are numerous "ejective" sounds (such as clicking) for which symbols had to be created. Word by word, Montler has developed dictionaries, reference guides and computer games.

He has plumbed the technical aspects of the language, but he is enjoying the process of going beyond pure academics into the hands-on work of trying to make a language live again. "At some point, you have no choice," he said during a recent two-week visit to the reservation. "It just draws you in."

The hope is that Klallam will draw in the children.

The tribe provides weekly training sessions for adults, which draw sparse attendance. But the real focus is on the schools. Five people have been trained as cultural specialists who go into the schools, beginning with Head Start, to teach children songs, then words and the beginnings of grammar and speech.

Perhaps no one in the tribe is as linked to the effort as Jamie Valadez, who helped get the language program started and now teaches Klallam at Port Angeles High School.

"We realized that we needed to train young people about the culture and language," said Valadez, 43, whose grant proposals have resulted in $700,000 during the past decade.

On a recent day, Valadez flipped through flashcards with her classes, told the teenagers stories and played word games. In one class, she even incorporated a version of the television game show "Jeopardy," with students saying things such as, "I'll take nouns for $100" and "Verbs for $500."

Although the students often play games in class, the language restoration program is a serious matter. Valadez was elated in January when the Washington State Board of Education agreed to grant special teaching certificates that would allow speakers of indigenous languages to teach in the public schools. As part of a three-year trial, the speakers won't have to earn teaching certificates, but they will secure approval from a panel selected by the tribe.

Many of the state's other tribes are looking to Valadez to see how her tribe got started. Still, the language remains fragile. There are no fluent speakers yet. Hardly anyone on the reservation can yet recognize or pronounce even basic Klallam words. The ones they want to reach most -- children -- are sometimes lukewarm about the prospect of learning Klallam.

Ralisa Lawrence, 16, a student at Port Angeles, said even many of her native peers "don't see it as useful." But for a language that has been dormant for decades, progress is measured in small steps.

"We may never get to be fluent," Valadez said. "But it's going to be alive as long as people use it."

2003 The Washington Post Company