Recent Conference Led by the
Kalispels Draws Hundreds of Participants
The unmistakable melody of Michael Jacksons Thriller
filled the packed room at the Pavilion at Northern Quest Resort
and Casino. A trio of women took the stage, executing the iconic
dance moves as the lead singer, sequined hat, one glove and all,
belted out the song.
tune was familiar but the words were not.
Thats because the song was performed in Salish at the
Salish Karaoke Contest on March 6 during the Celebrating Salish
More than 400 tribal members from across the Northwest registered
to attend the three-day conference. They had much to celebrate.
Just a few years ago, the Salish language languished in near oblivion.
Enter JR Bluff, assistant director of culture for the Kalispel
Tribe. He said several years ago he heard the elders worry about
how to preserve the language. They wanted to do this, but
they just didnt know how, he said. A light came
on for me.
Bluff reached out to Chris Parkin, a leading expert in Salish
language revitalization and curriculum development. He said
the only way this will happen is if you do it. You learn the language
and teach the people, Bluff recalled.
So, he recorded the elders words and phrases. He adapted
a program given to him by Parkin and created a curriculum. I
started slamming the language down my throat. Im a guy who
likes responsibility. Im not afraid to take chances. I was
thrown into deep water, and I just started swimming.
Bluff dove in not a moment too soon. When he began working for
the tribe there were a dozen elders fluent in Salish. He said, We
lost half of them by the time we started this program.
As quickly as he learned the language he taught it to others.
I was learning 10 words right before I had to teach them in
The first goal was to introduce a Salish class at Cusick High
School. Bluff said, Now, every day we have about 70 kids at
Cusick High School, 10 adults in language intensive classes and
one hour of immersion (class) in grades 1 through 6 in conjunction
with the Cusick School District.
For Bluff, a key has been finding others as passionate about
the language as he is and encouraging them to teach. One of those
teachers is Jessie Fountain, 25. I was working in the tribes
child care center and JR taught me and a few others the early childhood
curriculum, she recalled.
That taste whet her appetite for more. It came naturally
to me, she said. It was a missing piece of my culture.
Currently, Fountain serves as language coordinator for the tribe.
I dream in the language. Im raising my son in the language,
she said. I teach it every day. Within 15 months we can bring
someone to fluency.
Bluff said the Salish conference began about four years ago.
Because Salish is the language of many tribes other than the Kalispel,
Bluff was besieged with requests for information. The tribe decided
a conference would bring together those searching for ways to reintroduce
the language with those who were actively teaching it.
We started with a two-day conference at Spokane Falls
Community College, Bluff said. About 100 people attended,
and we had to do all the presenting.
The conference has grown exponentially. At this years
event presenters came from across the region. We wanted to
pull together the doers, the warriors, the people fighting to keep
the language alive, Bluff said.
The event has become the largest gathering of Salish speakers
in the Northwest.
At the karaoke contest, 14-year-old Alicia Arcand took the stage
in a red satin dress. Her family cheered as she sang the Salish
version of I Feel Good. Theyd come from Keremeos,
B.C., for the conference.
Like English, Salish is spoken in different dialects around
Arcand wasnt the only one sporting red satin or performing
I Feel Good. Bluff drew thunderous applause as he did
his own James Brown impression. Clad in a zebra-print trimmed, red
satin shirt and pants, he tossed his James Brown do
and strutted across the stage.
Celebrating Salish is what were all about,
Hearing teens and adults perform pop songs in a language that
once bordered on extinction seems a fitting way to commemorate the
relevancy and revival of the language.
Its coming back. Everyone wants to be a part,
said Fountain. For me it filled a void and connected me to
That connection is vital. The language gives us our tribal
identity, Bluff said.
And he still dreams big. There will be a day when were
not teaching the language. Well be fluent and speaking it
among ourselves and in our classrooms. Were just waking it
On the Web
For more information visit www.kalispeltribe.com/language.