PORT ANGELES, Wash.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."