At a Loss for Words

The Native-American language Salish–Pend d’Oreille is on the brink of disappearing.

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Pend d’Oreille elder John Peter Paul (1909–2001) stands near the spot in Montana’s upper Bitterroot Valley where the Salish tribe first encountered the Lewis and Clark expedition. Paul and his wife Agnes were the last married couple to regularly speak Salish-Pend d’Oreille at home. 

Thompson Smith/The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Cultural Committee and Elders Advisory Council (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005)

John Peter Paul, a rugged, dignified man, was extremely ill during the summer of 2000. He was ninety-one years old and suffering from stomach cancer. Still, every week he insisted on wheeling himself into the (Longhouse) on the Flathead reservation in northwestern Montana. There, he and other elders of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes would gather in meetings I had set up to expand and fine-tune the dictionary of their language and the collection of texts that we had been working on together for many years.

On one occasion in midsummer, when John’s illness reached a crisis point, he refused to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to miss our scheduled meeting the next day. As a result, he had to be rushed to the hospital in desperate condition the next morning. His fierce dedication to the task of documenting and preserving his language almost cost him his life.

Other elders I work with share his dedication to their language and the culture it expresses. Some are Pend d’Oreilles, like John; the rest are Bitterroot Salish (also called Flatheads). Although they are different tribes, they share the same language—which is called, logically enough, Salish–Pend d’Oreille—albeit with minor dialect differences.

But like so many indigenous languages on every populated continent, Salish–Pend d’Oreille is on the point of vanishing. Fewer than thirty fluent native speakers remain, and nearly all of them are elderly. The great majority of the roughly 6,000 Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal members do not speak their ancestral language at all.

The fluent Salish–Pend d’Oreille speakers who work with me report that the only opportunities they have to “talk Indian” are at the tribes’ Culture Committee’s weekly elders’ meetings from the fall through the spring, and in their weekly language sessions with me during the summer. John Peter Paul, who died in 2001 at the age of ninety-two, was married to his wife Agnes PokerJim Paul, a Bitterroot Salish, for seventy-two years; they were the last married couple who spoke their language regularly at home. Their oldest daughter, Josephine Quequesah, is a fluent and highly skilled speaker of the language, but some of her younger siblings have a more passive level of fluency.

What happened to bring Salish–Pend d’Oreille to this precarious position? The obvious answer—the absolute necessity for most Americans to speak English in order to survive economically, together with the appeal of mainstream American culture to most younger tribal members—tells only part of the story. Another factor is the boarding schools that many Native children were forced to attend, starting in the nineteenth century. Those schools implemented the United States government’s policy of assimilating Indians by replacing their native cultures, including their languages, with Anglo culture and English. (The policy had close parallels in Canada and Australia.)

The assimilation policies that took place on the Flathead reservation—and elsewhere—were often brutal. Some teachers and principals beat children for speaking their language anywhere on the school grounds.

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