The words of their ancestors

SUQUAMISH — Shee. Chalish. Chukla. Zuh. Kapoo. Kapu. Puh.

If these sound like noises from a virtually unknown language, it’s because they are. But it’s not your typical language that is offered through the modern high school curriculum.

At the Suquamish Tribe’s new education center on Totten Road on Wednesday nights, the classrooms are filled with these sounds, coming from folks ranging from ages 6 to 70, struggling to learn a language that is barely spoken today: Lushootseed.

Learning the

alphabet all over again

While the language is printed on various signs throughout the community, trying to pronounce the sounds of the letters is another matter. All parts of the mouth are used, including the tongue and cheeks, as well as the back of the throat for pronouncing guttural sounds. And sometimes, a little spitting is required.

“If you don’t spit, you’re not doing it right,” said 14-year-old teacher Cassandra George, as members of the class struggled with a particular sound during a recent lesson.

“When you learn the alphabet, you have the foundation to read,” said Tleena Natrall, a Port Gamble S’Klallam tribal member with strong ties to the Suquamish. She has been engaged in the language since the ‘70s and has been helping coordinate recent efforts to start classes again after not being offered for nearly a year.

Today, there are two Lushootseed classes that take place simultaneously on Wednesday nights, offering basic and advanced instruction. The advanced group covers the same material as the beginners but goes at a faster pace, Natrall said. Both classes include a review of the alphabet and common phrases, plus an activity, such as playing Bingo, where students match Lushootseed words or phrases with the picture on cards.

The structure of a Lushootseed sentence is different from English, as the verb is spoken first, followed by the subject of the verb, similar to how some foreign languages work. Besides the mechanics, there is spiritual significance in putting the “spirit word,” the verb, first, Natrall said.

Natrall is working to secure contracts for the teachers through the tribe, as they are currently teaching because they want to, she said. To be a certified teacher, candidates must go through both tribal and state certification processes. While the class is intergenerational, with extremely young teachers and some students who have grandchildren, everybody relies on each other for help.

One of the teachers, Lena Maloney, started learning the language about three years ago, when she took classes from an instructor who was fluent in both northern and southern Lushootseed, and would visit the reservation to teach classes.

As she began lessons, Maloney said she kept asking herself why she kept going because it was so hard. The teacher was speaking entirely in Lushootseed and it was so much different from English. But as time passed, learning the language became easier, plus she had a niece who spoke it and helped her.

“I’ve been wanting to (learn the language) since I was a little girl,” Maloney said.

George learned from the same instructor and is now helping people twice her age. She has also volunteered to teach it during summer school at the tribal center.

The teen first became involved because her mother wanted her to learn it but “it came really easy for me to do,” George said.

Funding sources

limited, until now

While class availability was consistent this fall, that hasn’t always been the case. The language has been taught off and on throughout the years on the reservation, and even at the University of Washington in the early 1980s.

But the one time classes were consistently offered was when the tribe was granted a three-year award from the Administration for Native Americans, from 2001-2004. The grant helped establish a foundation for the program that exists today, such as developing the curriculum and teaching tools, said Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman.

When the grant money ran out, the topic of future funding was raised at a tribal council’s budget meeting last year.

“Youth and elders testified to the importance of the language to our culture and history,” Forsman said, noting that the tribal council responded by doling out its own dollars for the program. “We wanted to keep the classes going, so council went ahead and approved it for the 2005 year.”

The council is currently reviewing its budget and is considering funding it again for next year, with hopes of making it an annual line item, Forsman said.

To help with costs as well as to encourage students to attend, program coordinators are collaborating efforts with the tribal youth department to provide transportation for students to the education complex while teachers prepare dinner and set up the classrooms.

Participants are pleased to see classes being run the way they were before — in a very relaxed atmosphere.

“It’s been nice to hear from the youth the comments, ‘I’m so glad you are doing this again,’” Natrall said.

Language as a

culture identifier

Kalina Lawrence, 12, first started learning Lushootseed when she was 7 while participating on the tribal canoe journeys.

“I think it’s important for our youth to pick it up again so it’s not completely lost,” Lawrence said. “We can show people how important it is to us.”

Toni Jones, who is taking the classes with her husband, John Jones, and their children, said she had a grandmother who spoke the language but it was never written down. Now, after having children and being involved in the canoe journey, she has witnessed how important it is to keep it alive and is motivated to continue to learn it.

Forsman took classes in 1981 at UW and while it’s been more than 20 years, he’s trying to pick the language up again himself, but is also impressed with how the youth are absorbing it.

“The young people are very disciplined and precise,” he said. “If you mispronounce something, they’ll let you know.”

“This is really good for the young girls,” Maloney said of the youth in attendance during a recent class. “They are the ones ... that will pass it along — not our generation.”

Several of the tribal youth can speak it well, she added. Maloney was also part of a group that started teaching the language to youth at Suquamish Elementary and noticed how easily they picked up.

“Pronunciation is much easier for them than adults,” she said.

Forsman sees this as a good sign of the language being revived.

“Our language is vital to our identity as indigenous people,” he said. “This is as important as the land and the water and our place names — our culture and all those things that make us Suquamish people.”

Just knowing a few words helps keep the language alive, Natrall’s grandmother told her often.

“I’m hoping (students) will be able to walk away with pride and the fact they learned it,” Natrall said.

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