ARLEE – Only half a dozen students have ever made it all the way to eighth-grade graduation at the Nkwusm Salish School, so the fact that the number will grow by two more on Friday is cause for celebration.
The school will do just that, sandwiching the graduation ceremony for T.J. Felsman and Indigo Sherman around a barbecue and powwow.
Young Taryn Matt also will be graduating, from Nkwusm’s preschool program into kindergarten.
Now in its 13th year, Nkwusm has 24 students enrolled. Many parents, however, choose to move their children into the public school system before eighth grade, according to reading teacher Echo Brown, limiting Nkwusm’s number of eighth-grade graduates.
Even Brown did so with her own daughter, who attended Nkwusm from preschool through fourth grade before transferring to the Arlee Schools. It’s a story Brown likes to share with parents of prospective students who have concerns about their children attending a school where every subject is taught in the Salish language.
“My daughter is a 4.0 student who is in honors English,” Brown says, “so it didn’t hold her back.”
Meantime, Brown's daughter spent her early years immersed in her native language and culture.
Friday’s graduates have taken it farther. Sherman has been at Nkwusm since first grade, and Felsman started there in preschool.
“They’re very competent in conversational Salish,” Brown says of the two eighth-graders. “They can talk to elders, their teachers, their peers. They can read and write the language, and their understanding of fluent elders is very high.”
Felsman and Sherman are the school’s first eighth-grade graduates since 2013.
Friday’s celebration at the Arlee Community Center will begin with a potluck feed at 5 p.m., and end with a powwow that starts at 7 p.m.
In between, at 6 p.m., Felsman, Sherman and Matt will earn their diplomas.
Nkwusm began with another name – Snqwiiqwo Snacxlgimintn – and three preschool students in 2002.
The original name meant place of races, according to Patrick Pierre, who has taught at the school since its first day. It was chosen because Salish Indians once raced horses at the site where the school is located, and also to signify the race against time Native people face to preserve their languages.
Nkwusm’s website says fewer than 50 people are alive who can speak Salish fluently, most of them older than 75, and none under the age of 50.
The name was changed to Nkwusm to better reflect the school’s philosophy of teaching all subjects in Salish. Pierre says Nkwusm means “one family” or “one fire.”
“When you walk in, you’ll know you’re not in your average school,” Brown says. “You’ll see older students with younger students, and they may be sitting on a buffalo rug instead of at a desk.”
“We don’t just teach the language,” Pierre says. “We teach the culture, we teach about the mountains and forests and rivers and creeks and wildlife. You’ve got to know why you’re speaking the language. There’s so much more wisdom in the language than when you just speak English.”