Tribal Languages to be taught in Washington State

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jan 16 13:25:55 UTC 2003

Seattle Times, Wednesday, January 15, 2003, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Keeping native tongues alive

By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington tribes will decide who is qualified to teach their language and
culture in state public schools under a pilot program expected to be
approved soon by the state Board of Education. The policy would be a first
for the state, where public-school teachers usually must gain
certification through universities. A hearing on the program is scheduled
for today in Olympia. Tribes hope the policy will help keep their language
and cultures alive.  For some, it will also help heal a cultural wound
caused by schools that once beat Indian children for speaking their own

"We know it is not changing things overnight. But I believe something
historic is happening," said state board member Linda W. Lamb. "We worked
very hard as a nation to eliminate the languages of the tribes. We can't
undo the damage that has been done. But this hopefully will move
foreword." Larry Davis, executive director of the state board, also sees
broader benefits. "If it is a way for tribal kids to do better in school,
who is against that?" Davis said. "And if it exposes non-native kids to
different perspectives and culture, that is a good thing, too."

Instructors without certification are permitted to teach in public schools
under the supervision of a state-certified teacher. But they are usually
paid less, don't have the same benefits, and can't run the classroom
themselves. With certification may come increased respect for the teachers
and for the importance of keeping tribal language alive, some tribal
members say. Tulalip tribal member and language teacher Rebecca Posey, 29,
has been teaching Lushootseed, her native language, in public and tribal
schools since 1998.

"Right now, it's hard for them to fit in Lushootseed. But if we are
certified, maybe they would see we really mean business," she said. "We
want to keep our language alive." Learning tribal languages is more than
learning a subject: It conveys the world view and culture of the people
who speak it, tribal members say. "I didn't experience what it was to be
Muckleshoot until I began to learn the language," said Valerie Bellack,
coordinator of the tribe's language program.

"I connected with those people who are my ancestors, and there was a real
breakthrough in my spirit. No longer do I just consider myself a community
member. But I am a tribal ancestor, and there is a rich heritage here that
I am so proud of and that I am part of. "Our language is so picturesque,
it is our mind and our spirit, our heart, and it brings back our sense of
pride and identity." Instruction would be offered under a three-year pilot
program beginning next month and would run through the 2005-06 school
year, when the program would be extended, modified or made permanent.

Participating tribes would train and appoint the teachers they deem
qualified to teach their language and culture. Those appointed to teach
would also be required to undergo a standard background check and a class
on abuse prevention. Next, the Board of Education would review the tribe's
proposed program, and issue a certificate qualifying the teacher to accept
a job teaching in a public school. Tribes and local school districts would
work out the details of the program for their local schools, including the
number of hours of instruction, and whether the program will be paid for
by the tribe, the district, grants, or a mix of all three.

The teachers would teach only tribal language and culture unless they have
other certification. Preservation of tribal languages is a race against
time. Most Washington tribes have only a handful of fluent native-language
speakers left. That provided some of the urgency behind the launch of the
pilot program.  "We are not going to require a 70-year old basket weaver
to go back to college and jump through all those hoops," Lamb said.

The pilot was born of three years of work by the First Peoples' Language
Committee, a grass-roots group of tribes from around the state. "It gives
us a lot of hope," said Martina Whelshula, a former language instructor on
the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington, who helped launch the
effort. "We were told we are primitive, and substandard and backward, and
you can't take care of yourselves, and we need to act in your best
interests because you don't know what those are. This is an opportunity to
reclaim a part of our self that was taken away, and part of that is
dignity and the respect and the acknowledgement of our status as tribal

Marsha Wynecoop, language-program manager for the Spokane tribe, says the
program is the right thing to do. "Why can't the school system that had
taken away the language be the ones to help return it?"

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