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Tribal Elders Revel In Northwest Language Revitalization

This week, nearly 500 teachers and students of Salish are in Spokane to celebrate the indigenous language. It’s considered ‘critically endangered,’ but tribal elders are optimistic that younger generations aren’t going to let the language disappear. 

Centuries ago, if you traveled between Washington’s Eastern Cascades and Western Montana, it’s likely, you would have bumped into someone who spoke a dialect of Salish. It’s a language spoken by many tribes in the Northwest.

It’s the first language Johnny Arlee ever learned. 

“Here’s something that my great grandmother used to tell me: In time, we’ll all be speaking one language, which is English, I guess. When that time comes, then the world is gonna end,” Arlee said.

Arlee, 77, was raised by his great grandparents on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. That’s how he learned the language. 

He almost gave up speaking Salish, but then, the Kalispel tribe started hosting an annual conference to celebrate the language in Spokane. Arlee attends every year. 

“It’s an awakening, not only here, but all Indian country,” he said. “Their languages are coming back. As long as the young ones carry it on.”

For at least a decade, the three-day Celebrating Salish Conference has drawn teachers and students of Salish. They share what they know and look for ways to continue to make it more accessible.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Emily Schwing
Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.