Learning the Language: The Revitalization of Lushootseed

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Lushootseed, once the primary language for a large part of Washington State, is making a comeback thanks in part to a unique program at UW Tacoma.

You have to stop and think.  What’s the word for water, for coffee, for cup?  You know what to say in English but that language is off limits in the kitchen.  The process is slow; you stumble a bit before your memory kicks into gear.  You think you know what to say but decide to look at the index card next to the faucet just to be sure.  Turns out, you were correct.  The word for water is qwuʔ.  

What sounded and felt like failure is actually progress. “We work under the premise that this is imperfect,” said University of Washington Tacoma Assistant Professor Danica Miller. “It’s not about getting an A on a quiz, it’s all about production.”

Miller, a member of The Puyallup Tribe of Nations, is an instructor in the Lushootseed Language Institute at UW Tacoma. The two week, 80-hour language program is part of a larger effort to revitalize the Lushootseed language.
Assistant Professor Danica Miller speaks during the opening ceremony for the Lushootseed Language Institute.

The Institute is a collaboration between the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, UW Tacoma and the Key Bank Professional Development Center. The tribe recently gave the University a $275,000 grant to help infuse Native American ways of knowing into teaching, learning, and research.

The course, held over a period of two weeks in early August, will provide participants with a unique opportunity not only to study but to use a language that was once widespread in this region and with which we still experience on a daily basis. Many of the places we call home—Puyallup—and many of the things we identify as essentially Northwest—geoduck—owe their names to Lushootseed.

History of Abuse

Lushootseed belongs to the Salishan family of languages. Up until the early 1800s, Lushootseed was the only language spoken by indigenous peoples living in an area from present day Olympia in the south to Skagit Valley in the north. The Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains provided the eastern and western borders.

First contact between indigenous people and European explorers came in 1818 when the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Puyallup River watershed. Settlers came to the region in the 1840s. What followed is a scenario that played out across the United States. This messy, often violent history can, for the purposes of this article, be best understood by looking at how the language came to the brink of extinction.
A map of the indigenous languages of Washington State.

“It’s important to know that English was forced through laws and violence onto our people,” said Miller. “Both the US government and the State of Washington were very antagonistic toward Northwest tribes.” Dr. Miller will teach about local tribal history as part of the language institute.

In the 1860s the United States government began a campaign to remove the vestiges of Native American life. So called “day schools” were established. Native American children were taken to these schools during the day and made to learn English. They returned home at night—the assumption being that these children could help “civilize” their parents.

Starting in the 1880s the federal government began a much more aggressive campaign against the Native American way of life. Children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to boarding schools where they were often physically punished for any outward display of their heritage, including language. “Besides genocide and disease, 99% of language loss among indigenous people is a result of these boarding schools,” says Miller.

While forced education and assimilation are no longer the rule, a century’s worth of mistreatment has taken its toll.  There are no concrete numbers concerning the number of Lushootseed speakers pre-contact. The general view is that 12,000 people spoke the language. “There are no first speakers left,” said Miller. “No one is learning the language as their first language anymore.”

A Strategy for Success

In 2005 the Puyallup Tribal Council started a program to revitalize Lushootseed. This early model emphasized grammar and memorizing a predetermined set of words. “We weren’t really even speaking the language, we were just writing things down,” said Amber Hayward, the director of the Puyallup Tribal Language Program.

Early results were mixed. Students in the tribe’s schools were getting exposure to the language but usage wasn’t widespread. The narrow focus of these initial efforts produced speakers who saw no real connection to Lushootseed. The words they learned weren’t used in everyday conversation so there was no real-world incentive to practice and master the language. “Our council wanted to get the language everywhere,” said Hayward. Doing that would require a shift in approach.

Zalmai Zahir has been studying Lushootseed for forty years. He started teaching the language out of his home in 1989. “In the nineties I was doing the grammar-based approach and didn’t get any speakers,” said Zahir.

Discouraged, Zahir started doing some research. He came across an idea for reclaiming languages based on a concept of domains. The idea is to take something like a location and use Lushootseed, not English, as the primary language in that location. “You pick an activity you do every day in your life like frying an egg or making a cup of coffee and you self-narrate what you’re doing,” said Zahir.

Zahir tried out this idea by asking students in an online course he was teaching to reclaim a domain by creating a “language nest” in their home. The results surprised Zahir. “I took a break in the summer and came back in the fall,” he said. “I tested them to see how far their proficiency had dropped but they hadn’t dropped at all, they went up which I’d never heard of before.”

This immersion strategy was adopted by the tribe and will be used during the language institute. Students will be asked to create language nests in their kitchens. Lushootseed will also be the primary language inside the classroom. Miller will give her presentations in English but the other instructors will be using Lushootseed.
A few of the instructors for the language institute.  From left to right: Zalmai Zahir, Chris Duenas, and Amber Hayward.

The course is broken into different sections that highlight specific cultural aspects like music or storytelling. Part of the class includes a discussion about how to use technology like a smartphone to create a video. At the end students will be tasked with making a short language video.

Using digital media is part of The Puyallup Tribe’s larger plan to revitalize Lushootseed. Videos made by the tribe show how the language can be used in everyday life. The videos are often humorous and cover a diverse set of topics including emotions and basketball. “Part of the tribe’s approach is to take the language out of the ivory tower and bring it back to the people,” said Miller.

Lushootseed is also taught to students in Chief Leschi Schools and tribal-run daycares. The inaugural Language Institute is geared toward teachers who can go back and cultivate Lushootseed in their communities. The Puyallup Tribe’s multi-faceted approach seems to be paying off. “I can go to various places in the area and I run into people and we can have a five to ten minute conversation in Lushootseed,” said Zahir.

The Future of Lushootseed

Language revitalization is a vague term that is more a goal than a definition. Zahir believes it’s important for each person to come up with their own meaning. “My thought is, if we’re getting people to speak Lushootseed for an hour or more per day can we not assume then that it’s becoming a primary language in their lives,” he said.

A potential sticking point is how people will actually use the language. English, for example, has lots of slang and new words are added regularly. Then there’s the natural tendency for people learning a new language to sprinkle in words from their native tongue. None of this seems to worry Miller, Hayward or Zahir. They see Lushootseed as active and not static. The language may be rooted in the past but it doesn’t have to stay there. Case in point, a Lushootseed word for “synthesizer” was recently created.

As for the language institute, Miller and The Puyallup Tribe are working on that too. “We hope to have this every summer,” she said. “My mental three-year plan is that we will do this again next year and eventually have a beginner and an intermediate group.”

These are big objectives but there are also very personal reasons for revitalizing Lushootseed. Hayward has two young sons and she relishes talking to them in the language of their ancestors. Zahir echoes this sentiment but takes it one step further. “I want people to accept their heritage and their ancestry but I also want them to enjoy it because there are things about the culture to enjoy that you can’t get anywhere else.” 

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / August 3, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu