To Be Native in the Northwest
Photo by Chetanya Robinson
Native peoples were forbidden—by the U.S. government and others— from using our native tongues, so our languages began to die out. But Native people are resilient and languages persisted. Language, of course, is more than a set of words. It communicates values and beliefs in subtle, nuanced ways. Sometimes, what’s most important isn’t what’s said, but what’s implied and felt.
Today, many Natives are working to revitalize language in school, in homes, and in the community. Over coffee, during shared meals, in songs and prayers, we’re again hearing the sounds of our grandparents, and of their grandparents and of the generations who came before them.
In case you were wondering...
How do you pronounce wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ?
If you’re wondering why those letters look like something from outer space, it’s because traditional Native languages did not have written scripts. In tribal communities, everything from stories to news was shared verbally. To convey those sounds, we need to use linguistic and phonetic symbols. This particular word, wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, means “longhouse” in Lushootseed—a dialect within the Coast Salish family of languages.
Aren't Native languages extinct?
Fortunately, not all of them. Preservation of language is the preservation of our people and our culture. Through our languages, we honor what came before us and pass it on to the next generation. It is the knowledge of the way we have always survived—and that is sacred to us.
“From the beginning, our language was only spoken, sung, dreamed, and heard. It was never written, and did not need to be. Lushootseed is so rich that when it was first written down, the 26 letters of the English alphabet could not catch its 46 sounds.”Vi Hilbert , former member of the Board of Lushootseed Research