ARLEE – Two decades ago, it seemed that important Indigenous languages in the North West were disappearing, with fewer Indigenous speakers.
But with the adoption of the International Phonetic Alphabet, the dedication – and prayers of elders and young – of schools like Nk̓ʷusm in Arlee is securing a future for the Salish language.
Elder Stephen Small Salmon says he says a Salish prayer every day on his way to school to teach: “I know if I go in there, I’ll feel good here.
“I really want to cry,” admitted preschool teacher Nicole Perry before introducing her students. “That’s how I know I’m getting old. But I really try not to cry.”
Perry, among the former students returning to teach, wasn’t the only one crying and smiling, as this year’s junior and eighth-grade classes recently graduated.
It was emotional for alumni like Allen Pierre, whose father played a key role in founding the school.
“When you have your culture and your language, those two things go together. It will help you navigate when you become an adult. It will help you navigate your way through life.”
It’s a journey that begins for graduates Leonides Stevens and Maxe Bell, honored with gifts and accolades for their hard work and impact on their families.
“It makes their family stronger,” observed Pierre. “It allows them to understand who they are.”
Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Vice President Leonard Twoteeth agrees, saying young people are the people who will “save their culture.”
It was this mission launched by four young people who approached the tribal council with a unique idea. Chaney Bell, who now sits on the board, reflected on what it was like to come up with the concept.
“Thinking back to that support, from elders and people. All the different people from that time. We were told there would be magic. And we kinda joked about it. Because it was hard. But when you look back, twenty years later, it was truly a magical moment.”
It’s a moment that now extends online, with a new app released this spring. Famous, with their own children, learning lessons of respect.
“Your language and your culture are no better than anyone else’s. But it’s yours. It makes you who you are. And it adds to the beauty of the world,” she told me. Bell after the ceremony. “But seeing my old kids, you know, is just an extra thing. An extra blessing to be able to get my own kids involved in this. And to give them this gift as well. It’s pretty awesome.” -Chaney Bell