“Would you like to learn the Indian language?” Of course! All Indians would like to learn the Indian language, whether the downriver Nez Perce dialect adopted by the Cayuse forebears, the NE Sahaptin known as Walla Walla or Ichishkíin, or the Columbia River Sahaptin “Umatilla,” the three Sahaptian dialects of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Unfortunately, it’s not something one can absorb through one’s skin, or from the CD or cassette tapes placed like good luck charms beneath the pillow. It probably was like that for our primary speakers who picked up the tongue with ease as children when their brains were in the cognitive sponge stage. Now the primary speakers are ages 70-80-90. The youngest fluent speaker is in his latter 40’s.
We are all ruled by the tyranny of English, now hard-wired in our brains, structuring our very thoughts. The linguistic distance from English to our native tongues is like light years. If you loved drilling grammar and syntax in elementary school, you will love the grueling process of getting a handle on a second language. The young language apprentices have been trained in total physical response and accelerated vocabulary building, so they are using all new fangled teaching strategies at Nixyáawii high school. That is the prime audience of people younger than 18 years of age, before the hard-wiredness really sets in. The motivation is high. That’s how languages stay alive, from young peer-to-peer usage.
Ten years ago, our tribes were privileged to have resources of active generous elder teachers who extended themselves mightily in classes and one on one. Our reservation was wealthy in language resources at that time. Inevitably that cadre of elders has dwindled in number, so we do treasure the speakers that are among us today.
This past Saturday was the memorial celebration of ‘Á’a Tóhon, “Crow Leggins,” Eugene John, our late teacher of Nimiputimtki who passed away in 2010. He was fond of stating that he was “Laxáyu,” an enrolled Yakama Indian, but he was a deep speaker and prolific teacher of the upriver Nez Perce dialect, and he lived here much of his adult life because of his iwéepna, wife, and wéetes, land holdings here. Ironically, he first appeared at the language program as a potential student when they advertised Nez Perce classes. He was a brilliant natural teacher. He steadfastly taught at Tamástslikt four hours a week for about 9 years. His life experience was enough for two or three people. There was little talking at his memorial while I was there, but we were all thinking of his multitude of stories and his personal evolution. Seated at the front of the longhouse were several of the Idaho Nimiputimtki teachers who were his friends and consultants.
Tamástslikt was fortunate to have Nez Perce teachers ‘Á’a Tóhon, Priscilla Craig, Gordon Watters, Joan Burnside, and Kathleen Gordon; Walla Walla teachers, Edith McCloud, Lillian Hoptowit, and Celia Bearchum; and Umatilla teachers, Inez ‘Twaway’ Reves, Emily Littlefish, Mildred Quaempts, Joan Watlamet, Modesta Minthorn, Janice George-Hill, Fred Hill, and Thomas Morning Owl. Noel Rude, venerable master of all dialects, taught weekly linguistics classes here for as many years. It’s wonderful to say, we have known them all. It’s sad to say, there are no longer language classes at Tamástslikt. But there are more strategic vital pockets of language-learning going on around the reservation today so the language can live, the longhouse being one of them.
I wisht I woulda hung on to the old Arrowhead gas receipts that had printed on them, níixmash wáta thlkwíi, have a nice day.