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Called to Speak: The Struggle to Ensure an Indigenous Language Lives On

In the next 100 years, half of the world’s languages could go extinct. But a family and a school in Washington are committed to saving one of them.

October 1, 2019
A photo of a man wearing a blue button-down shirt and a brown tweed tie looking at the camera

Joel Serin-Christ


Rajah Bose

Susanna Chapman

Grahm Wiley (Massachusetts ‘11) was just 11 years old on the day in 1997 when his mother left him at home with his father, Chris Parkin, and his older sister Danica Parkin to go to the funeral of her great-uncle Joseph Barr.

Grahm’s mother, LaRae Wiley, drove only about 30 miles northwest toward the Columbia River from their home in the small eastern town of Chewelah, Washington. But that short trip would launch their family on a complicated and all-consuming educational odyssey.

LaRae is sn̓ʕay̓čkstx (Anglicized as Sinixt or Sin-Aikst), descended from people who originally lived in the region around the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia, Canada. She’s an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, like her great-uncle Joe was. She fondly remembers him teaching her to love music and ride a horse.

But LaRae had been raised away from the reservation. At the time of the funeral, she didn’t fully understand the trauma of her great-uncle’s generation, when the government coercively separated American Indian children from their families and sent them to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their languages.

So LaRae was surprised to learn at her great-uncle’s funeral that he had been a speaker of their ancestral language, Colville-Okanagan Salish. And she was stunned when an elder faced the gathered mourners and issued a plea: “Who will take his place? Who will learn our language?”

There’s no simple explanation for the saga of sacrifice and perseverance that LaRae’s family would put themselves through for the next 22 years. LaRae and her husband, Chris, a self-proclaimed “language nerd,” would upend their lives to answer the elder’s call. They would leave their home to camp on the Colville reservation. They would live for stretches in the wilderness of British Columbia, skirting financial catastrophe as they dedicated themselves to learning and teaching a new generation to speak Colville-Okanagan Salish or n̓səl̓xčin̓ (pronounced n-sillh-cheen).

Over time they would set themselves a goal of writing a curriculum that anyone could adapt to teach any Indigenous language in a classroom setting. They would share their methods and translations with others working to revitalize Indigenous languages around the Northwest U.S. and Canada, including the earliest partners to adopt their approach, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

The nonprofit organization Native Land documented the approximate geographic areas where these Indigenous languages were traditionally spoken.

As Grahm and his sister Danica grew to be adults, they would get caught up in their parents’ mission. And 14 years after Great-Uncle Joe’s funeral, Grahm’s decision to join the Teach For America corps would lend his family critical expertise at the very moment when they were launching a K-12 Salish-language immersion school in eastern Washington’s biggest urban center, Spokane. Many of the pedagogical and classroom management strategies that Grahm was learning at his placement school in Massachusetts would form a foundation for this new school.

Today, every member of Grahm’s family has a role in the remodeled stone ranch house and portable classrooms that make up the Salish School of Spokane. The school, with its 58 students and full-time and part-time staff of 32, has significantly added to the number of fluent adult speakers in the U.S. And it’s created a place where children (including Grahm’s and Danica’s daughters) can speak n̓səl̓xčin̓ as their first language.

The only way LaRae can explain what moved her, after that funeral, to start on this journey is by using a Salish word: c̓əq̓spuʔúsm̓. It means an epiphany or a deep understanding—literally, “something that hits your heart.” That question from that elder—“Who will learn our language?”— hit her heart. She knew what she had to do.

Grahm's mother, LaRae Wiley (above), founded the Salish School of Spokane. Now every member of his family helps pass her ancestral language on to the next generation.

Languages Are Going Extinct

Across the globe, 40% of the more than 7,000 languages still spoken today are endangered. They’re dying with their last speakers. Researchers believe that one in five of the world’s languages has fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining and that over the next century, half the world’s languages will disappear. Most of these will be Indigenous languages.

In 2010, UNESCO classified almost half the languages Indigenous to the United States as critically endangered. Many from the Pacific Northwest and the Northwest Plateau are nearing extinction or are gone. n̓səl̓xčin̓ is one of seven existing Interior Salish languages (there’s also a family of 40 endangered Coast Salish languages) that are spoken from the western Rockies to the eastern Cascades and north into British Columbia. Today, Grahm’s family believes there are so few elders in the United States who speak n̓səl̓xčin̓ that you could name them all.

From the time she started learning Salish, LaRae grasped that it would be complicated and all-consuming to revive a language dimmed by the genocide of its speakers. Chris, who taught high school Spanish, was fascinated by the process of language acquisition, and he eagerly joined his wife’s quest. As Chris and LaRae began to think about how to develop a process for anyone to become fluent, they set out to create a place, perhaps a school, where children could learn using the “language nest” model developed in New Zealand in the 1980s to revive the Māori language.

In language nests, children are immersed from an early age, usually starting in preschool, with the goal of creating a generation for whom the language of the nest is their first. So a day care center was the earliest iteration of the school this family would go on to launch in the city of Spokane. From visiting with other tribes, LaRae had concluded that it would be important for not just kids but also their parents to learn to speak n̓səl̓xčin̓ at home and with each other. She came to believe that the only way a language could truly be revitalized was to create fluent families, not just fluent children.

Today, the work of LaRae and Chris has evolved into the Salish School of Spokane, a private school with sliding-scale tuition (about three-quarters of students would qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and all have family members who are Indigenous). The school requires all parents to attend 60 hours of language classes each year, and teachers are required to become fluent. Every day, after school for kids ends at 4 p.m., teachers spend another 90 minutes in n̓səl̓xčin̓ instruction.

Seneca has been raised with Colville-Okanagan Salish as her first language. She knows more of the language at age 7 than her father knew after years of study as an adult.

If the Salish School today is not yet an enclave of fluent n̓səl̓xčin̓-speaking families, it’s still a success by many measures. Each new cohort of students picks up the language more quickly and understands it more deeply as the curriculum and the practice of teaching in n̓səl̓xčin̓ improves. And although the elementary school (where Grahm is the lead teacher) is fully n̓səl̓xčin̓-immersion, the 12 elementary students last year all scored at or above grade level on state tests of reading in English.

The school’s language texts, storybooks, and other resources (mostly authored by Chris, LaRae, and an elder from British Columbia) have been adapted by others working to preserve Indigenous languages in places including the land of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band and the Westbank First Nation Reserve in British Columbia, the Kalispel reservation in northeastern Washington, and the Flathead reservation in Montana.

The Kalispel Language Program is one of the oldest partners of the Salish School of Spokane. Leaders have worked with Chris and LaRae to translate six of their n̓səl̓xčin̓ language books and storybooks—each one a level more advanced than the last—into qlispé (k’-lees-peh). After Chris and LaRae opened a Salish-immersion school, the Kalispel tribe followed by launching a K-2 immersion school (they recently received a grant to expand to grade 5). J.R. Bluff, the tribe’s language director, says, “By learning our language, we are able to see the world through a new set of glasses. The world just looks different.”

The world looks different for LaRae, Chris, Danica, and Grahm now, too, as the school has become a center of language and culture in their Spokane community and they see kids bringing their language to new places, including Salish karaoke contests. But while many individual tribal members support and helped develop the school, Chris and LaRae did not get support at the beginning from the leaders of the Colville Confederated Tribes Language Program.

That program today teaches 3 languages, including n̓səl̓xčin̓ across a 1.4 million-acre reservation. The best way to preserve the language, they say, is to teach it through a curriculum that is “land-based, historical, spiritual, and centered on our legends, stories, and culture.” Teachers on the reservation tie instruction to “seasonal rounds, so students and instructors can be experiencing cultural and spiritual happenings during significant and appropriate times.”

In a collaborative statement the language department leaders said, “At this point, our program feels it is extremely important that we honor our ancestors by staying as true to our own language and culture as we can so our next generations are clear in who they are as an enrolled member or descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes.” Chris (who is white) says he has been challenged on whether he or Grahm (who’s a descendant but not a member) should be teaching the language at all.

An Elder Leads

This rift could have ended the Salish School of Spokane before it ever started. But there was one elder who volunteered to teach Chris and LaRae the language at the very beginning and to help them write their books. Her name was Sʕamtíc̓aʔ (pronounced s-ahm-tee-tsuh).

In 1997, when LaRae had her revelation at Great-Uncle Joe’s funeral, she had been teaching choir and working as a librarian. She and Chris started their journey with small steps. As LaRae began to learn one of the Salish languages, Spokane Salish, they began to co-teach a bilingual Salish and Spanish middle school class on the Spokane reservation. They developed 30 lessons to teach beginning Salish based on the Spanish language-acquisition methods Chris used as a teacher.

Then LaRae got the chance to intern at a new language preservation program in Omak, Washington, on the Colville reservation. The work was a three-and-a-half hour drive from home, but it was her chance to learn n̓səl̓xčin̓ by working with fluent elders, Sʕamtíc̓aʔ, among them.

That summer Chris and LaRae rented a house and temporarily moved the family up to Omak. Teenaged Grahm got his first introduction to n̓səl̓xčin̓. He and a friend who is also sn̓ʕay̓čkstx, Jake LaMere, spent a sweaty summer learning in a single-wide trailer that baked in the heat of the high Washington desert.

But even as Chris and LaRae began to develop a methodology for teaching the language, LaRae was fired from her internship. She and Chris were intentionally trying to create materials any future learner could access. “I wanted to share the language with everyone before our speakers were gone,” LaRae says. But, according to LaRae, tribal language leaders opposed their practice of recording elders on their own and transposing the language onto Western language lesson templates.

Sʕamtíc̓aʔ disagreed. She spoke n̓səl̓xčin̓ at home and wanted her grandchildren to be able to speak it. The independent-minded elder from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band was impressed with the lessons Chris and LaRae had already created. “She could see what we were going to do before we could,” Chris says.

At Sʕamtíc̓aʔ’s invitation, Chris and LaRae sold their home in Chewelah and moved to a house next to hers on a rutted dirt road in rural Paul Creek, British Columbia.

With Sʕamtíc̓aʔ as their language teacher, they developed the practice of writing language books and pairing them with “leveled” stories. Sʕamtíc̓aʔ helped them translate the oral stories they had been collecting from elders into storybooks and workbooks of increasingly advanced grammar and vocabulary, so that students could engage with traditional stories at each level as they progressed toward fluency. Grahm, by this time a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, spent that summer in Paul Creek, tanning hides with Sʕamtíc̓aʔ and chasing rattlesnakes off the porch with an Evergreen alum who would later become his wife, Dominique Camacho.

“By learning our language, we are able to see the world through a new set of glasses. The world just looks different.”

J.R. Bluff

Language Director, Kalispel Tribe of Indians

Back in Chewelah (once their money and time in Paul Creek ran out), Chris translated their first books into qlispé, and LaRae taught Salish at Eastern Washington University. Two years later, the day came to put their materials to a test. 

Danica gave birth to a granddaughter. This was their impetus to see if a family in America could raise a child whose first language is n̓səl̓xčin̓. Chris and LaRae launched a home day care center for their granddaughter and three other children whose parents wanted them to learn the language. Grahm, who’d begun teaching Salish at the local college, agreed to fill in for LaRae one day at day care. He came away realizing he had no idea how to teach children.

So he did what his family does. He took the leap and enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which he now calls his “year abroad.” Grahm was able to cobble together classes in rural education, Indigenous education, and language acquisition, but what he really wanted was to become a more skilled, credentialed teacher. He applied to Teach For America and was hired to teach kindergarten at Alma Del Mar Charter School in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

As Grahm was learning to teach, a small group of women led by LaRae gathered enough small grants and donations to launch a real school, the Salish School of Spokane. From the start, they enforced the requirement that parents learn n̓səl̓xčin̓. That depressed enrollment, and funding faltered. 

In 2012, as Grahm was finishing his first year as a corps member, the school ran out of money—just in time for the federal Administration for Native Americans to award it a competitive, multi-year grant to support a Salish language nest and to put elementary grades on a strong footing. After writing a curriculum that developed fluent speakers, the founders of the school now had to learn how to develop fluent teachers.

Grahm’s old friend Jake LaMere was hired to teach. Quickly Jake and Grahm became almost nightly telephone buddies, as Grahm began to lead Jake through an experience that was something like institute-by-phone. Lesson planning, setting expectations for students, supporting their literacy, redirecting and encouraging them—Grahm passed to Jake everything that was working well at his school. He talked about a book called Teach Like a Champion and deconstructed it, chapter by chapter, to consider each practice through a linguistically and culturally relevant lens. He passed on the “neutral narration” method of talking through lessons, which exposes students to multiple forms of one verb. The school still uses it today, in n̓səl̓xčin̓.

As he was finishing his corps commitment, Grahm (who had married Dominique and changed his last name to Wiley Camacho) got the call. The Salish School of Spokane needed (and could pay for) a lower elementary school teacher. He took the job and came home.

Students in Grahm's class read books in English to practice English literacy, but they write and hold discussions in Salish.

Building Toward the Vision

Ten years after its launch, the Salish School of Spokane today occupies a house that looks similar to many of its neighbors in suburban north Spokane. A wood fence surrounds a garden where students cultivate vegetables. There’s a play structure with a lemon-yellow tube slide and a big lawn. It’s a full-immersion school through grade eight; the high school is bilingual English-n̓səl̓xčin̓, moving toward all subjects being taught in n̓səl̓xčin̓. Inside, former living rooms and the finished basement have been converted into classrooms displaying posters and charts written in n̓səl̓xčin̓, hanging above bins of books organized by reading level. The n̓səl̓xčin̓ alphabet parades high along the walls, each letter matched to a picture of a local animal, plant, or item from sn̓ʕay̓čkstx (Sinixt) culture.

At 7:30 a.m., drop-off begins as cars stream into the triple-wide driveway, pre-k students heading toward the portable classrooms, older students to the basketball hoop. This is a family school in every way. Many of the drop-off parents work full- or part-time jobs, including as kitchen staff. At 9 a.m., students circle up. Drumbeats announce the beginning of the school day.

Grahm spends most of his day with his lower elementary students including Seneca, the older of his 2 daughters. They read, write, learn math and science, make art, garden, all in n̓səl̓xčin̓. Some days they practice piano or powwow dancing and drumming led by two elders, Jim Tomeo and Pat Moses.

The school’s curriculum developers translate the content of lessons in history, science, and other subjects into n̓səl̓xčin̓. Still, teachers including Grahm have to practice delivering those lessons as they progress in their own fluency.

At 4 p.m. teachers say nín̓wiʔs əɬwikn̓tsn̓ (see you later) to their students and head down a steep, narrow staircase to a concrete-walled room, where they take seats at one of four long tables arranged in a U. Chris sits at a table in the center with his laptop connected to a projector and a small speaker. A Word document filled with n̓səl̓xčin̓ is projected onto the screen behind him, and the teachers settle in for a 90-minute lesson.

The school remains committed to growing fluent families. On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, all families are invited to a half-hour community meal followed by a 90-minute n̓səl̓xčin̓ class. (Other community members also join, including Gonzaga Preparatory School students fulfilling their language requirement.) On Thursdays, staff members teach Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Salish. Once a month, the school hosts a night when kids and parents can work alongside elders on projects including beading and basket-making.

Grahm Wiley-Camacho and his mother, LaRae Wiley. Rajah Bose

As Grahm’s daughters learn powwow dancing and drumming, Grahm is constantly considering his own identity in relation to the school and the larger Indigenous community. Grahm is what he describes as a “white-coded” descendant who lives off the reservation. His family started out wanting to help revitalize an endangered language. “Language first” was their motto. “When we started there were no kids being raised in the language,” Grahm says. “The youngest fluent speaker was fifty-five years old.” Now there are 7-year-olds who know more Salish than Grahm knew when he was 25.

But language, culture and history are intertwined. To teach one is to be responsible for teaching the others. Grahm doesn’t feel he should step into the more spiritual aspects of sn̓ʕay ̓čkstx culture (although his mother carries many forward, like the Winter Dance she leads). He does, however feel connected to his ancestors. And he’s come to recognize that as a leader of a language school, he’ll be asked and feel obliged to do things like offer a n̓səl̓xčin̓ prayer at Gonzaga University’s Indigenous graduation ceremony.

Grahm’s ultimate goal sounds very familiar: He wants all students to be ready to do what they want when they graduate, “whether that’s living a traditional life speaking Salish on the reservation or going to medical school.” His goal right now is to help kids (and adults too) speak n̓səl̓xčin̓ and make sure students are reading and learning on grade level.

Two decades after his mother was asked, “Who will learn this language?” Grahm is asking a different question: “Where will our children take this language next?”

Who will speak the language? The students, parents, and staff of the Salish School of Spokane are learning while they still can.

Featured image: In July, students rallied in Spokane to mark the United Nations 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. Each class performed a song. Many wore red handprints across their faces to bring attention to the crisis of #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women).

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