Spokane, WA–According to linguists, languages not learned by children in the traditional way, passed on from one generation to the next, are doomed to extinction. Unless, of course, there are conscious and deliberate efforts taken by the community and their philanthropic partners to revitalize those languages.

Salish is one of many critically endangered Indigenous languages at risk of extinction. “For 90 years, our children have not been raised with the Salish language,” says Christopher Parkin, Principal of the Salish School of Spokane. “Interior Salish is only spoken by 24 surviving fluent elders, and most of them are in their 70s or 80s.”

In 2009, LaRae Wiley, who is a member of the Sinixt Arrow Lakes Band, along with Parkin, her husband, and Colville tribal members Michelle Wiley-Bunting and Trina Ray, worked with 14 surviving fluent elders to establish a language immersion school that would help revitalize the Salish language.

The Salish School of Spokane is a Native-led nonprofit organization that offers childcare and elementary school for families in the City of Spokane and surrounding areas. It is one of the few urban-based Indigenous language schools in the country.

New Fluent Speakers

The school officially opened its doors in September 2010 with six students and one full-time employee. Over the past nine years, the school has grown to 58 students and 30 full- and part-time employees. The school has produced 17 new fluent Salish language speakers and has been well received by the community.

“We’ve always had a wait-list for our school,” says Parkin. “However, we haven’t always had enough teachers and resources to meet the needs of those students.”

In 2018, First Nations Development Institute awarded the Salish School of Spokane $90,000 through the Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII) to build the capacity of Native-led organizations committed to preserving and perpetuating Indigenous languages. With the NLII grant, the Salish School of Spokane will expand its elementary school to a middle school by translating 7th and 8th grade math books into Salish, and training more language teachers.

Salish is the language of instruction for all subjects (math, science, literacy, art, music, etc.) taught at the Salish School of Spokane. According to Parkin, a typical day at the Salish School of Spokane begins with students greeting the day in their circles. Throughout the day, students also learn to sing in Salish, and learn about traditional foods and medicines.

“We strive to give students a total connection to their true and full heritage, which has roots that go back 10,000 years on the Columbian Plateau,” says Parkin. “We teach our students to be very traditional, but they are also very modern so we try to merge traditional and Western education.”

Merging Traditional and Western Education

Students also learn how to play the piano and sing contemporary songs in English. During the day, teachers read to students in Salish and English, but always expect their students to discuss and write their responses in Salish.

The students at the Salish School of Spokane have benefited tremendously from this bilingual education. Parkin notes that 100 percent of the third through seventh grade students are reading English at or above grade level, with many of those students actually reading at two or three grade levels ahead.

With a 6:1 student-to-teacher ration, students at the Salish School of Spokane are on par with students at private, upper-class schools. These accomplishments are even more impressive, Parkin notes, because 15 percent of the students at the Salish School of Spokane are or have been in the foster care system. Seventy percent of the students are from low-income families.

“Academically speaking, the statistics for kids in foster care are abysmal. They tend to do worse in school and have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse,” says Parkin. “Our students are succeeding because they are a part of a culture-language community that allows them to connect with their culture. Language revitalization brings healing to all kinds of areas.”

Inter-Generational Interaction and Transmission

The Salish School of Spokane offers free Salish language classes for parents and the community. Parents with students at the Salish School of Spokane are required to complete at least 60 hours of Salish language classes per year. The goal is to encourage students to continue speaking the language once they leave the classroom when they are at home with their families. 

“Children cannot learn the language in isolation,” says Parkin. “Our goal is to restart the inter-generational transmission of language–multiple generations speaking the language. We want to empower people to once again raise their children with the language.

With the NLII grant, the Salish School of Spokane will provide language training to four interns hired from among low-income parents of current students. The internship program will give parents a foundation course for a certificate in early childhood education. After completing the internship program, parent interns will be eligible to work at the school as early language instructors.

“The Salish School of Spokane is more than a school,” says Parkin. “It is a language-culture community where we connect elders with youth, teachers with students, and parents with their children. It’s a shared community, and the foundation of that community is language. Language revitalization is cultural revitalization.”

To learn more, visit the Salish School of Spokane’s website (http://www.salishschoolofspokane.org). The website includes the school’s language curriculum, which tribal elders mandated must be shared with other Native communities interested in language revitalization.


This article is from the First Nations Development Institute and is edited for space. To see the whole article by Sarah Hernandez, click here.

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