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CSKT working to keep Salish language alive

SAINT IGNATIUS – The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe is working hard to keep its traditional Salish language alive through college classes and immersion schools that teach the ancient words.

Students at one Mission Valley High School are eagerly embracing a legendary language. It’s not a foreign language — it’s a native language — and in a Saint Ignatius High School classroom, the students are going at it full speed ahead.

Salish instructor Naomi Billedeaux is already thrilled at the progress her class is making this year in learning a language that struggles to be heard. She told MTN News that only 21 tribal members are fluent. She wants to be one of them.

“There are just 60 people now actively learning the language including myself. We’re just not going to let it die. We’re just motivated to keep it going to share what our ancestors shared with us,” Billedeaux said.

For many of the students, Salish was spoken by their elders and learning it honors them. “I’ve seen it dying over the years. It’s not a slow process. I think over the last six months, we’ve lost five to seven fluent speakers,” student Jacob Hugs said.

The sounds are different and the letters are, too. But the old language has met new technology – there’s now an app that helps learners hear and say words — learn culture and history.

“There’s muscles and sounds in Salish that you don’t normally use in English so you just have to practice. It does take a while but you build up those muscles in your mouth. You just keep practicing,” Billedeaux said.

Billedeaux says she’s encouraged that the year has just begun and her class is almost through the first workbook. She believes the students could go further than any class before them in learning a language that’s inherent to their culture.

“It’s important to our tribal elders. It’s so important to them so if it’s important to them, then it should be important to us,” Billadeaux concluded.

The Salish language learning app is available to anyone to download for free.

MTN’s Jill Valley