According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 28 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives, age 5 and older, speak a language other than English at home. This is compared to 21 percent of the nation as a whole.
This statistic is filled with hope. You see, it tells me something about the resurgence of American Indian languages. It seems strange that a language could be considered“endangered,” but not so long ago, many American Indian languages were on the verge of extinction. Some tribes have been able to resurrect their languages; others haven’t been so lucky. Thankfully, the Klallam language — my ancestors’ dialect — is one of the survivors.
Klallam is in the family of Salish languages that was traditionally spoken by Native peoples of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Each of the different S’Klallam tribes — Port Gamble/Little Boston, Lower Elwha, and Jamestown — speak a slightly varied Klallam dialect. The differences lie in certain pronunciations and word usage.
The Klallam language was almost lost because of federally supported boarding schools that encouraged and coerced the removal of Indian children from family homes for immersion into European-American culture. At these schools, American Indian students were often given new names and were forbidden from speaking their own languages. The purpose here was clear, considering language provides a connection to one’s identity, culture and community. Many of our elders, returning to the reservation after a youth spent away, have struggled with reclaiming who they are as Port Gamble S’Klallam. The sad reality is there are no Port Gamble S’Klallam elders who fluently speak the Klallam language.
And the story might have ended there — a vital part of our culture lost to the ignorance of outsiders and the passage of time — but this is actually where hope begins to grow.
In 1990, the Native American Language Act was passed. In short, this executive order denounced past policies of eradicating Indian languages and made clear that American Indians had a right to use their native languages.
Soon after, our sister Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam, began a program that would prove to be the lifesaver for the Klallam language. By 1990, there were only eight people who could speak the Klallam language. Fortunately, tapes dating back to 1953 contained conversation with over 21 Native speakers that had been recorded by linguists. In 1992, the Lower Elwha Klallams began the ambitious task of transcribing these tapes. This was the first step in revitalizing the language. Today, the Klallam language is taught at Port Angeles High School and satisfies the non-English language graduation requirement. More than 200 students have taken these classes since the program began in 1999.
Lower Elwha’s Klallam language achievements have benefited everyone within the S’Klallam Nation. Remember, the Port Gamble S’Klallams had no elders who spoke the language fluently. In essence, we had no one within our community to learn from. Lower Elwha shared their curriculum and knowledge, while setting up a certification system that has allowed members of our Tribe to learn the language and then feel comfortable enough in their skills to teach others.
Today, I’m proud to say that the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe provides the opportunity for its youth to be connected to the culture through our ancestral language. We begin teaching Klallam to our youth through our Early Childhood Education programs, then there are classes for grade-school kids and those attending the Northwest Indian College to learn the basics of the language, including the alphabet, basic words, and simple sentences and phrases.
Clearly, there’s more work to be done and our goal, someday soon, is to create an environment where every Port Gamble S’Klallam can have the opportunity to become fluent in the Klallam language. I have more than hope that we’ll get there.
— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.