On the brink of extinction

BLUE BAY - For some 10,000 years, Kootenai Indians have spoken their unique native language high in the mountains, in the forests and beside the waters of what is today called northwestern Montana.

Many Kootenai now fear their ancient language soon will become extinct.

"When I was growing up, I heard the language used all over. The language was spoken no matter where you went. Now the kids don't hear it spoken," said 60-year-old Patricia Hewankorn, director of the Kootenai Cultural Committee, during a weeklong Kootenai language camp at Blue Bay, a tribal retreat on the west shore of Flathead Lake.

The camp attracted more than 50 Kootenai youth and adults interested in learning or improving their Kootenai language skills. But the success was mixed. You don't learn Kootenai during a weeklong language camp, no matter how high your motivation or how expert the instruction.

"There is no language quite like ours," Hewankorn said.

The Kootenai language is notoriously difficult to learn unless you absorb it as your first language from native speakers as a child, linguists say. It is a unique spoken language, with no demonstrable ties to any other tongue yet studied by linguists and ethnographers anywhere in the world.

Additionally, many sounds in Kootenai do not exist in other languages, so these sounds are very difficult for non-native speakers to accomplish. An explosive, "glottalized k" sound, for example, is very common in Kootenai. But it takes much practice for a native speaker of English to achieve the sound. And a "buried l" sound resembling the "thl" sound in the English word "athlete" is another sound that does not exist in English.

It was never a written language, although modern linguists and ethnographers, with the help of native speakers, have devised a written Kootenai language alphabet (using the English alphabet as a base) and the Kootenai Cultural Committee has recently published a Kootenai-to-English dictionary to help in translation. (So far there is no comparable English-to-Kootenai dictionary).

But over the centuries, the language was a fluid, evolving and ever-changing tongue, fully integrating the Kootenai people into their culture and their world. Until about 50 years ago, that is.

It was then, three generations ago, that native-speaking Kootenai parents stopped teaching their children their native tongue. Only a few Kootenai children have learned to speak the language fluently since then, Kootenai leaders say.

Although many Kootenai tribal members understand the language when it is spoken by elders, few if any Kootenai under 40 years old claim fluency in conversation.

Parents chose to stop speaking Kootenai to their children, fearing it would create hardships for them when they attended public schools on the reservation, where English was the language used in schools, in commerce and in public life, according to Vernon Finley of Salish Kootenai College. Finley, a Kootenai Indian, has a doctorate of education from the University of Georgia and serves as director of elementary education and bilingual education at the tribal college in Pablo. He has been a serious student of the Kootenai language for several years, and has developed a successful Kootenai language program at the college.

He said U.S. government assimilation policies in the 19th century discouraged the survival of all Indian culture in the United States, including the transmission of native languages.

Public and private schools discriminated against native languages in the boarding school environment of the early 20th century where most Indians then received their schooling.

Indian parents eventually chose to make sure their children learned English so they could survive in the dominant culture, where English has become the universal language, not only in western Montana among the Kootenai and in the United States, but since World War II, in much of the world.

"In those days, it was not a good thing to be Indian. By the time it got to our parents, they realized what a hardship it proved to be for them to know their native language," Finley said.

Many Kootenai parents in the 1930s, '40s and '50s did as Finley's parents did. They spoke Kootenai at home among themselves and their peers, but spoke only English to their children, to make sure their children were fluent in English when they started school.

"They were trying to make it easier for us. They didn't want us to experience their hardships," Finley said.

All of these factors have contributed to the decline of Kootenai language fluency on the Flathead Reservation and among the six other Kootenai bands in Idaho and British Columbia. About 2,000 Kootenai still exist, Finley estimated.

The crisis in Kootenai language fluency was starkly described at a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council meeting in Pablo earlier this summer,

Velda Shelby, a tribal administrator and Kootenai tribal member, asked the tribal council to declare "a state of emergency for this language" and fund an unprecedented effort to revive it.

She said that in the past 15 years, the Kootenai on the Flathead Reservation have lost half of their fluent conversationalists, as elders have died.

"There are only about 20 people left (in the Ksanka band) who speak our language fluently," Shelby said, and almost all are more than 60 years old.

Shelby said the Flathead Kootenai have only about five years in which to reverse this trend toward extinction, or the language will be lost as a living tongue.

Of course, the remnants of a Kootenai language, frozen in time and spoken by no one, may be preserved in ethnographic books and scientific research papers. But by then it will be too late to keep the language alive and vital to the Kootenai people.

"We're dwindling down. We're really in danger of losing our language," said Hewankorn.

Shelby and others asked the Tribal Council to fund a Ksanka Language Commission to begin a broad program to promote Kootenai fluency and to identify funding sources for grants and other aid for language revival.

Shelby suggested federal agencies such as the Department of Interior and Department of Education as likely sources for funding. Even the Catholic Church, which ran the tribal boarding school in St. Ignatius back when Indian languages were discouraged, might contribute since the government-encouraged parochial educational system for native people contributed to the decline of Kootenai, Shelby said.

The ultimate funding goal is $900,000 over three to five years.

Tribal council chair Fred Matt encouraged the effort.

But the council committed no funding, at least at this time.

"Although this may sound a little aggressive, I'm a firm believer in 'where there's a will, there's a way,' " Matt told Shelby and others at the quarterly meeting in July.

Shelby and Hewankorn said Thursday they will visit the council again soon to renew their request and submit a detailed strategy for language revival.

What will happen to the Kootenai tribe if the language dies?

At the very least, much of Kootenais' unique cultural identity will disappear, because the essence of the Kootenai spirit and the way these Indians view the world is incorporated in their spoken tongue, Finley said.

Finley is hopeful that modern bilingual education teaching methods being developed by himself and by the nation's space agency, NASA, will stem the decline of Kootenai and bring about a modest revival of the language.

"I ask our elders, 'Do you think we can save this language?' They are confident we can," Finley said.

"They tell me, 'You will be speaking Kootenai, but it won't be the Kootenai we now speak,' " Finley said.

John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com.

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