Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 20, 2000 - Issue 10

Native languages for foreign-language credit
by Lisa L. Diaz Seattle Times staff Reporter

PORT ANGELES,WA - On the walls and blackboards of Port Angeles High School's new Heritage Language class, you won't see words like bonjour or buenos dias or guten morgen.

You see Klallam words - very different-looking words - for "goodbye," "new year" and "I'm cold."

You see words of encouragement like the Klallam phrase for "do the best you can, listen, respect and participate."

The two-year class, which began at the start of this school year, is one of only two American Indian-language courses taught in public schools in the state, offering an alternative way for students to meet their foreign-language requirement for college. The other program is at Ferndale High School near Bellingham, where the Lummi language has been taught for seven years.

"I thought it would be more interesting than Spanish or French," said 17-year-old Shannon Megonigle, a junior at Port Angeles High. "It's something different, and it's a chance (for the Klallam) to get back their heritage, since it was taken away from them."

Teacher Jamie Valadez, a Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member, said the 18 students in her class include not just Klallam tribal members but students from European backgrounds and other American Indian tribes.

"We're not only teaching our own students, but we're teaching all students about our culture," she said.

For the Klallam Tribe, getting the oral language into the classroom was a grueling, eight-year effort that began with building an archive of the all-but-forgotten words.

With only two fluent Klallam elders still alive, tribal members had to act fast, beginning in 1990 when they gave five elders tape recorders to talk into for hours at a stretch, as long as their strength held up.

Then came the laborious work of transcribing the words and translating them, then teaching Valadez and several other tribal members the language so they in turn could teach it at the high school. Finally, a broader curriculum was developed that is now being taught in schools districtwide, from the Head Start program through high school.

The broader curriculum includes six units: sea life, animals, community, the salmon ceremony, potlatch and canoe journey, all important components of the Klallam culture.

Each is six weeks long, but it is only in the high school that the language - alphabet, grammar and history - is incorporated into each. Students recently studied the Klallam treaty and discussed the Boldt decision that gave tribes the right to hunt and fish in their "usual and accustomed places."

The lessons and craft projects, such as making dream catchers, cedar-bark bracelets and tribal drums, give the tribal students pride and identity.

Romy Laungayan thinks that with members of his generation learning tribal traditions and language, they can pass it on to their children, "and the language will live on."

Bea Charles and Adeline Smith

Elder Bea Charles remembers being a child and seeing the sadness that shone in her great-grandfather's face as he watched the language and customs taken from his people during the first half of the century, when children were punished for speaking their native tongue and forced to speak English.

Charles also remembers the humiliation she endured in the white schools she attended.

Now, more than 65 years later, and after working for almost a decade with her 90-year-old uncle Ed Sampson and three other elders, she sees pride and respect returning to the children through words.

Sampson was one of the fluent elders who helped preserve the language. Charles and several other tribal members gave him a tape recorder and sat with him until his death in 1992.

"We had lots of fun when my uncle was recording," Charles said. "I'll tell you, he was comical. One of his statements was, `They told us not to speak our language. Now, the white man wants us to speak it again.' "

From 1990 to 1995, while the elders were speaking into recorders, the tribe hired a linguist to create a written alphabet for the oral language, called the International Alphabet Phonetic System. Some characters in the Klallam alphabet resemble the English alphabet. Others do not. The effort to create the tribal alphabet was financed through a historic-preservation grant from the National Parks Service.

"Transcribing was the worst part," said Charles. "It was such a tedious job to go through the tape, stop and translate it into English. We had quite a time because you're groping around for words that match the meaning in our language. You were brain-dead when you got through."

From 1995 to 1998, Valadez and two other tribal members were taught the language, with this phase of the effort financed by a grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA).

The broader curriculum was developed with help from the Port Angeles School District and a second ANA grant of $300,000 in 1998.

By this time, the newly trained teachers had already begun to teach the Klallam culture to youngsters in elementary and middle schools.

Starting young gives children advantages, said Larry Strickland, supervisor for social studies and international education for the state superintendent of public instruction. It allows them to learn tolerance and more than one language besides English.

"It's quite possible for kids to come out with three languages - tribal and then one other," Strickland said.

James Charles, 17, is one of the 18 students in Valadez's class.

Growing up in Port Angeles, only 15 minutes from the Lower Elwha Klallam reserve, James Charles was considered an "urban Indian" - an American Indian living away from the reserve with little knowledge of his culture or heritage.

Nobody knew better about his lack of identity than Charles, who says the class has helped him connect.

"I feel like I'm reaching a population that was hard to reach: a lot of the Indians living in Port Angeles, other tribes, like the Quileute, and nonnatives," Valadez said.

The students "don't always have good role models in their life. All I ask is do the best you can, listen, respect and participate."

Klallam Language

ElwhaKlallam Home Page

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