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Salish language centers around the heart

Barry Moses
(Sulustu) Barry Moses is teaching more people to be fluent Salish speakers.

By Mary Stamp

In the "critically endangered" Spokane Salish language, the status of one's heart is the focal point for communication among people, said Sulustu (Barry Moses), who founded the Spokane Language House in 2018 in Wellpinit.

In October, with a grant from the Spokane Tribal Business Council and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), he started a two-year Salish language immersion program, beginning with 17 people ages 25 to 55 who are intermediate-level Salish speakers.

The participants are paid a salary plus benefits to spend 40 hours a week to learn Salish through classes and immersion. With few other opportunities for immersion, the class is the immersion setting.

"The students' full-time job is achieving language fluency," Sulustu said.

As with all language learners, especially those living in two cultures, participants face many pressures—economic, educational, social and political—that push them in different directions, Sulustu said.

"Modern society pushes us out of balance with our desire to take time for ceremonies, language and culture," he observed. "Pressures on our time are intensive, making it hard for Indigenous people to maintain our culture.

"So we removed those obstacles by paying participants," he said.

"Research shows that language recovery is healing for Indigenous people, improving mental health, wellbeing and high school/college graduation rates," he said.

"Our language talks about being in right relationship with people, ecology and the world," he said. "Our worldview is based on relationships with one another and the natural world, rather than on being consumers."

Sulustu knows the importance of immersion in learning a language.

It's how he learned his first language, English, in his family and community.

It's how he learned his second language, Spanish, on a high school Rotary exchange in Mexico, and while living in Guatemala two years after graduating from Rogers High School in 1989.

It's how, over time, he learned to speak Salish.

His great aunts and uncles, his grandmother, Norma McCrea, and other extended family spoke with him in Salish when they were alive. He visited them in the summers after his parents, Ed Moses, who was Spokane, and Shelly Marie, who is white, divorced when he was six.

After his father became clean and sober and had a spiritual awakening, he took Sulustu to ceremonies throughout the Northwest.

In addition, most Fridays for 30 years, he has gone to sweat lodges with his uncle, Pat Moses, a spiritual leader and his only living relative who is fluent in Salish.

At Eastern Washington University, where Sulustu earned a bachelor's degree in secondary education in 1999, he studied two terms of Salish with the late Pauline Flett, Salish language preservationist and scholar.

That helped in his first job as a teacher and cultural specialist at the Medicine Wheel Academy, from 1999 to 2003. Many of its 25 students were from various tribes—plus a few European and African Americans.

When the Salish teacher retired because of health, Sulustu took over to teach Salish to 10 to 12 students. So, three hours on Sundays he was on the phone with his grandmother, who gave him lessons he taught during the next week.

"As Salish began to stick, I became an avid student of it," he said, noting that the oldest of his biological children, Dakota, 29, and McKenna, 26, know beginning Salish, and Whitney, 25, has intermediate skills.

From 2003 to 2015, Sulustu taught adult basic education at the Community Colleges of Spokane. In February 2015, he gained tenure, but in March had a massive stroke from a chiropractic injury.

Three months of medical leave was not enough. He couldn't stand or walk. He needed to rest often. On a year of leave, he began to work as a curriculum expert with the Kalispel Tribe language program in Cusick, which let him take naps and work from home.

That opened the door for him to teach Salish. From 2015 to 2018, he shared an office with Johnny Arlee, a Flathead elder from Montana who was a fluent Salish speaker, and Stan Bluff, Kalispel tribal chairman for 30 years and also a fluent speaker. That was an immersion experience for him.

Sulustu said a 1950s study of 175 common words in Salish languages found that 96 percent of Kalispel and Flathead Salish were similar, and 85 percent of Kalispel and Spokane words were similar.

The Spokane Salish School teaches the Salish spoken by the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Sulustu likened his understanding of that Salish to his "sort of" understanding Portuguese and Italian because he knows Spanish.

"The accent and words are different. I  'sort of' understand, but I can't respond in Colville Salish," he said. "Salish is an umbrella term, like European Romance languages."

There are 20 Salish languages. All are critically endangered, meaning most of the last fluent speakers are/were in generations of grandparents or great grandparents.  Some stopped because of trauma from boarding schools, he said, adding that there are fewer than five fluent speakers in the Spokane Tribe.

Sulustu, who considers himself high intermediate or low advanced in fluency, said that there are about 25 intermediate speakers, because the tribe has offered some adult classes. It also has an immersion learning preschool.

When he first started the Spokane Language House, he contracted to write curriculum and teach adults on the reservation.

"Salish is more than words, accents and conversations," he said. "It bears the essence or heart of the people and their culture, spiritual understanding and way of being.

"Salish is not about verb tenses, but it is about verb aspects. Time exists in the language, but not through verbs. In Spanish, we say, 'I went, I am going and I will go.' Salish expresses time with helping words that imply something is done, is ongoing or is an intention," he said.

"One aspect conveys the intention to do something. It's not about the future. It's about my will to do something, but my will may change," Sulustu explained.

The focus in Salish is on the condition of the heart. It invites people to look at their hearts.

The Salish greeting, "stem̓ a spuʔús?" means "What is your heart?" said Sulustu, who uses Unicode to represent the Salish phrases.

As a conversation starter, an elder may say to a child, "stem̓ a spuʔús?" which means "What is your heart?"

"As skilled observers, elders can sense something is going on in a grandchild's heart. They ask, not because they do not know, but can sense if the young person is upset," he said.

"čpléneʔ łuʔ spuʔúsc" speaks of a person's heart being obscured by spiritual debris, such as hate, envy, anger or jealousy.

"ʔesél łuʔ i spuʔús" means "my heart is two, or I am ambivalent," he said.

When pressured to sign treaties, Chief Spokane Garry said that in response to Governor Isaac Stevens. Sulustu guesses he was saying, "Partly, I think it may be good for us to have peace and go to a reservation, but partly, I believe we will lose our culture and identity, and lose where we pick berries, dig roots, hunt and fish."

"k̓ʷl̓k̓ʷul̓nt a spuʔús" means fix your heart and is said to people to remove the 'debris' from their hearts."

"We value having a clean heart, free of anger, worry, anxiety, pettiness and strife," he said. "If our heart is cluttered with debris, it's hard for our spirit to be in tune to collaborate, and it's hard to cross into the other world when we die."

There is no word for "justice," but many Salish words relate to interdependence or collaborating. The nearest concept is honesty, for people to approach each other with honesty in their hearts.

"i tox̣ʷ łuʔ spuʔúsc" or "his or her heart is straight," implying honesty, justice or fairness, and "i xʷuk̓ʷ łuʔ spuʔúsc" means "his or her heart is clean," implying the person has no anger, jealousy or envy, he said.

"We make life work well by cooperating," Sulustu said. "There is no literal translation for 'hecyaʕ̓lwís,' which describes the ethic of living, working and doing everything together.

Sulustu said "the idea of making the world better presupposes the world is broken or fallen, which is part of the Judeo-Christian theology of western society."

"God created the world and placed people in the Garden of Eden. People were tempted to eat the forbidden fruit and were cast out into a world with weeds, briars and thistles," he said. "Western culture lost paradise and strives to get it back. The abolition and civil rights movements were part of that."

In Salish creation stories, the world was dangerous, filled with monsters, beasts, pestilence and disease. Creator put people on earth after Coyote defeated the dangerous threats.

Then people were put in a world filled with fruits, berries, fish and animals that cared for the people, and people cared for them.

"Our role is to maintain the balance," Sulustu said.

"qe č̓łkʷenxʷcnwéxʷ" means "we answer one other," describing the spiritual agreement between humans and nature.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January 2024