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Preserving a Culture by Nancy Kolsti
Summer 2003      


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Thomas Charles Sr.

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Klallam words and phrases

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Preserving a Culture

Come Away With Me



In 1990, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam American Indian tribe in northwest Washington planned a celebration as part of the state's centennial.

But they soon realized that very few members could sing traditional songs and relate tribal legends and folklore in Klallam, the tribe's language. With only eight native speakers all in their 70s or older
Klallam was a dying language.

Today, however, Klallam is taught in several elementary schools in Port Angeles, Wash., near the reservation of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. In addition, students at Port Angeles High School may take Klallam for foreign language credit
thanks to the efforts of Timothy Montler, UNT professor of English.

Montler says it's rewarding to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Klallam tribal elders learn the native language of their ancestors after being raised to speak English.

"They are realizing how important it is to have a strong identity, and language is the most obvious emblem of social identity," he says.

Vanishing native languages

According to the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University, less than half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are likely to survive to the next century. The list includes many Native American languages.

  Timothy Montler  
  Montler received an honorary Klallam name in 1993. It was the name of a tribal elder's grandfather who taught the
language to others.


Montler points out that after American Indians were allowed to become U.S. citizens in 1925, the U.S. government attempted to erase the languages of tribes. The tribal elders who are the remaining native speakers today were sent to government-run boarding schools, where they were beaten for speaking their native languages.

"This generation didn't teach their children or grandchildren their native language because they didn't want them to suffer the same humiliation," Montler says. "It hits you that this language will be gone and faded from memory once the native speakers of it are gone."

The Native American Indians Act, signed by President George Bush in October 1990, reversed the U.S. government's policy to suppress Native American languages. A few years later, under the Clinton administration, the government provided grants to tribes for language preservation.

Back to work

The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe knew that the need to preserve its language was urgent. In 1992, the tribe received a grant from the National Park Service for historic preservation of its language. Staff members of the tribe's cultural office contacted Montler, who had been recommended to them by an anthropologist for Olympic National Park. The Elwha received other language preservation grants under the Native American Indians Act to pay for Montler to visit the reservation and gather information to create materials for teaching Klallam.

Montler had visited the tribe's reservation twice before in the late 1970s, when he was a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii. He planned to gather linguistic data about Klallam for his doctoral dissertation and for a dictionary his major professor was writing.

But after only eight weeks of work, he became discouraged.

"The Klallam speakers I worked with were too ill or too busy to spend time with me," he says.

He then began studying Saanich, a similar language spoken by the Salish tribe living on nearby Vancouver Island. Montler spent 11 summers learning the language from two tribal elders. He also received a working knowledge of Klallam from studying Saanich.

"Klallam and Saanich are as closely related as Spanish and Portuguese, and they have a lot of unusual sounds," he says. "They also have a distinguishing word order in sentences. The main verb always comes first. We would say, 'John saw Mary,' in English, but in Klallam and Saanich, the order is 'Saw John Mary.'"

When the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe contacted him in 1992, "all the elders I had contact with in the 1970s had passed away, so nobody there remembered me," Montler says.

Teaching younger generations

Since then, Montler has visited the Klallam reservations almost every summer. He created computer games for teaching the language to elementary and high school students. In one game, students hear a word and try to match a symbol on the screen to that word while the computer keeps score. They also click on a letter in the language to hear the sound of that letter.

"The computer gives them feedback without criticism. It's really a better method for learning a language than flashcards because it trains students' ears to hear unusual sounds," Montler says.

Jamie Valadez, cultural specialist for the Lower Elwha tribe's culture and language office who teaches the classes at Port Angeles High School, says that 86 students have been enrolled in the beginning and advanced courses during the past four years.

She also says tribal members of all ages have been eager to study Klallam. In addition to the instruction offered to students in the public schools, the tribe and two other Klallam tribes in the area offer adult language classes during the fall, winter and spring quarters.

"Some of those enrolled are elders in their 60s who heard Klallam when they were children because their parents spoke it, but they were discouraged from learning it. They were the first generation to lose the language," Valadez says. "We average about 10 students in the adult classes each quarter, and some are repeat students who have studied Klallam for years. Most take the language to be closer to their culture and for their own personal enrichment."

Oral tradition

Montler is creating a dictionary and grammar reference guide of Klallam, as well as similar materials for teaching Saanich. His office on the fourth floor of UNT's Language Building is filled with hundreds of tape recordings of the language. The recordings also include some Klallam folktales, which Montler hopes to publish.

He notes that the best way to get good grammatical detail is to have the native speakers of a language tell a story.

"I've gathered not just traditional folk tales and oral history stories, but also songs for different types of occasions, speeches and anecdotes. Listening to them, I heard words I would not have thought of gathering," he says.

The oral history stories were never written down by the tribal elders, so they were in danger of vanishing completely unless younger tribal members learned enough Klallam to understand them, Montler says.

"They are a very important part of tribal culture. The most important legend tells how the tribes ended up living in the Pacific Northwest. There was a great flood, similar to the story of Noah in the Bible, and the people who prepared for the flood made canoes. During the flood, they reach the tallest mountain peak, known today as Mount Olympus, and tie their canoes to the peak until the water recedes," he says.

For his work in preserving the tribal language, folktales and oral histories, Montler received an honorary Klallam name in 1993.

"It's a traditional name that doesn't really mean anything, but it was the name of a tribal elder's grandfather, who taught a lot of language and told a lot of stories," he says. "When I first arrived in the summer of 1992, I think some of the elders were amused and surprised to meet this strange white man who could speak their language. It's very gratifying to help them teach their language and culture to the next generations."

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