Thomas Charles Sr.
words and phrases
Away With Me
members of the Lower Elwha Klallam American Indian tribe in
northwest Washington planned a celebration as part of the state's
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
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.
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
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
Clinton administration, the government provided grants to tribes
for language preservation.
Back to work
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
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
"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
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,"
Teaching younger generations
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
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
"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."
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,
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
"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
"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