Yakama (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Dec 1 20:17:20 UTC 2003

A healthy sign for Yakama language
Middle-school classes help students keep their culture alive

Monday, December 1, 2003


TOPPENISH -- Students gaze attentively at Loretta Selam-White as she
motions her hand away from her body in a gesture that translates "Go my
son" in the Yakama language.

Surrounding Selam-White in a large circle, the students follow her lead,
listening to the instructions on how to sign.

"Go my son," she says, beginning the first verse of the song again. "It
should be an inside hand -- the back of your hand should be facing you.
"Go my son and earn your feather," Selam-White says, as the 26 students
follow her every move further into the first verse.

"You don't want your feather here because you don't wear your feather
here," she reminds them while pointing to the side of her head. "You
want your feather to stand tall back here," she says, holding up two
fingers at the crown of her head.

Selam-White takes the students through it again before going to the next

"Make your people proud of you," she says, turning her body to the right
with arm extended as if she was pointing to a group of people.

Students replicate every move as the song plays on a tape recorder.

Selam-White's special visit adds another cultural piece to Rosemary
Miller's class at Toppenish Middle School, where students in grades
four through eight are learning the Yakama language.

"It's a healing; it's a soothing that they can drift into," says
Selam-White, who has taught Yakama sign language for more than 15
years. "They'll be so proud when they're performing it."

Eighth-grader Cassandra Wesley, whose signing lessons began at home when
she was 10, says the class is a place where she feels comfortable.

"Actually, I feel pretty strong about this," she says. "I'm going to try
and encourage my little nephews and cousins" to get involved in the

Signing is integral to the Yakama language, she says, noting that it's
still used by some in ceremonies where talking is forbidden.

Today, signing has become more of a cultural performance.

"And the smiles on those old people's faces; it just touches the elders'
hearts," says Selam-White.

The language class, which incorporates other aspects of Yakama culture,
is open to middle school students and meets every Tuesday and Thursday.
Its aim is to keep the Yakama language and culture alive.

"There is a lot of interest," Miller says. "It's neat to open it (to
non-Indians), because they are excited about our culture."

There are many dialects of the Yakama language, because the Yakamas are
a confederation of 14 tribes, and Miller says she tries to make it all
available to students.

"We just encourage them to learn as much as they can and I think that's
how our language is going to be saved," says Miller, who has taught
with the Toppenish School District for 16 years and recently began
teaching the Yakama language.

"We're trying to pull in as many elders as we can to come in and teach
our culture."

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