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Salish language fluency instills resilience for the future

By Mary Stamp

LaRae Wiley takes a moment to visit in Colville-Okanogan with several of the children who are immersed in the language at the Salish School of Spokane.

Realizing she missed out on connecting with her Colville-Okanogan Tribal heritage as a child in Cheney, LaRae Wiley immerses her children, grandchildren and other urban Indian children in Salish languages and culture.                     

From its beginnings as a daycare, the Salish School of Spokane now has a staff of 33 and serves 69 students from ages one to 11 years old in two licensed child care programs, an ECEAP preschool and a private K-5 elementary school. 

Three classes are in the Colville language and one in Kalispel.

In April, the school begins accepting applications to enroll 15 students in 8th to 12th grades for September.

In October 2016, the school received a five-year, $1 million Administration for Native Americans I-LEAD grant for their Native Youth Empowerment Project to start a secondary school. The grant is seed money, so the school must raise matching funds of $50,000 a year.

By the fifth year, it will serve at least 25 Native youth in immersion language, culture and mentoring experiences with “elders and knowledge keepers.” Teachers will also give students individual academic support to complete a high school diploma and leadership training.

The students, who enroll in Spokane Public Schools’ online learning, spend 90 minutes a day learning language and doing such cultural activities as making drums and regalia, powwow dancing and going out on the land to gather traditional food and medicine.

The Salish School of Spokane also has 50 in adult classes Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and Saturdays.  For their children to be enrolled, parents are required to learn Salish four hours a month. The goal is to bring back intergenerational transmission of language, LaRae said. There are also tuition breaks for parents who study more than 40 hours.

“Language and culture are preventative medicine,” she said.  “If people feel disconnected from who they are, they may fill themselves with drugs and alcohol.  Culture and language create a foundation for being whole and building resiliency so they see a future full of promise.”

Spokane has a large urban Indian population with people from many tribes, mixed tribal backgrounds, and mixed European-American and Native American, she said.

As a child, LaRae visited cousins on the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation a few times a year.  Her mother was non-native.  Her father, an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, grew up in Chewelah.  His mother was Colville, and his father was of Scottish heritage.

LaRae didn’t know that Salish languages were endangered until the funeral of a great uncle, who was one of a few fluent speakers.  At the service, an elder said the tribe was losing language speakers and asked people to step up to learn and teach it.

Then 30 years old, she began thinking about ways to connect herself and her children with the language, people and heritage.

Now LaRae, who previously taught history, English and music, and her husband Chris Parkin, who has taught Spanish, have developed curricula, textbooks, videos and other educational materials. 

She learned and taught the Spokane language first, then Colville.  The Spokane, Colville, Kalispel and Coeur d’Alene languages are part of the Salish language family.  Like the Romance language family of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, they share similar words and sounds.

LaRae met Chris, who grew up in Deer Park, while studying at Western Washington University.  She earned a degree in teaching at Eastern Washington University in 1990. Chris taught two years in Bridgeport, and, in 1992, they moved to Wenatchee, where he taught Spanish and she taught in middle school.

Wanting to raise their children, Danica and Grahm, near family, they moved to Chewelah, where her grandmother had lived. LaRae taught eight years in the middle and high schools there.  Chris taught at Gonzaga Prep and commuted for five years.

In 2002, LaRae began going to Wellpinit to study the Spokane language. She quit teaching in Chewelah and volunteered for three years at the Wellpinit language program, teaching Headstart, elementary and middle school.

“I felt connected as I both learned and taught the language,” she said.

Chris, whose heritage is Irish, continued teaching at Gonzaga Prep while they stayed in Chewelah until their children finished high school.

LaRae was frustrated not to have the tools Chris had for teaching Spanish: “I was learning the language, teaching it and creating materials.  It was an oral language until linguists introduced the international phonetic alphabet to write words,” she said.

LaRae asked Chris to help her write a curriculum for the Spokane language to provide a plan to follow.  She recorded Ann McCrea, a fluent elder with the tribe.  They created a 45-lesson textbook and audio recordings.

Now there are just a handful of fluent speakers of the Spokane language.

“Learning language and culture empowers me to know where I come from,” said LaRae.

After Danica, now a nurse practitioner, graduated from high school, the Colville Confederated Tribes received a grant to help preserve the language. 

LaRae applied to be one of nine people to work with elders to become fluent in one of the three languages used by the 12 bands on that reservation: 1) Colville-Okanogan, spoken from Colville to Revelstoke, B.C., 2) Columbia-Moses or Columbia-Wenatchi, a Salish language spoken from Wenatchee to Moses Lake, and 3) Nez Perce, a Sahaptian language. 

From 2003 to 2005, Sarah Peterson, an elder from Keremeos, B.C., drove to Omak twice a week to meet 10 hours a day with LaRae, who drove from Chewelah.

Together with Chris, they created a modern language curriculum with audio discs and lessons, beginning with learning “hello,” “goodbye” and other practical phrases.  They now have six textbooks to help people build fluency sequentially.

While there are only 10 to 15 fluent Colville-Okanogan speakers in the U.S., there are more than 100 in Canada. So after Grahm graduated from high school, Chris and LaRae sold their house in Chewelah and moved to live with Sarah in B.C.  From 2006 to 2008, they learned language and created language books.

When Danica began nursing school at Washington State University-Spokane and had their first granddaughter, Mireya, Chris and LaRae moved to Deer Park to provide child care.  They decided not to speak English to Mireya and their other grandchildren, so they could be fluent. The children are bilingual, because English is all around them.

“For a language to stick, you have to use it,” LaRae said.

As Mireya, now 9, grew older, she needed to speak Colville-Okanogan with other children. 

LaRae and her sister, Michelle, gathered several children and families and started a “language nest” in Michelle’s basement.  They began with four girls, her sister’s daughter and a friend’s granddaughters. They paid LaRae to be the teacher.

Knowing the success of “language nests” among New Zealand’s Maori and native Hawaiians, they gathered mothers, grandparents and children to learn together, too. 

Meanwhile, Chris contracted with the Kalispel Tribe to create a Kalispel language curriculum.

After six months, LaRae, Danica, Michelle, Stevie Seymour, her mother Shelly Boyd and Trina Rae decided to incorporate as a nonprofit so they could apply for grants.  When others heard they were teaching language, singing and drumming, they wanted that for their children.

Chris and LaRae rented a house on N. Cedar to open a daycare for six children.  In 2008, they were incorporated as the Salish School of Spokane and could raise funds.

The second year, 12 students paid for child care.  They hired a teacher and staff, and offered evening classes for parents. LaRae volunteered as executive director.

Lacking space for the demand, they leased their current site at 4125 N. Maple, where they add module units as they grow.

Most of the teachers learn to teach and learn the language by on-the-job training.

Beyond the Salish communities, LaRae hopes people in the region will want to learn to say hello and thank you—as Hawaiians and tourists learn “aloha” and “mahalo.”  In Colville, hello is “way’” and thank you is “limlmtx.”  In Spokane, they are “a’ ” and “lemlemts.”

LaRae is concerned about federal funds, but knows that when they started, they relied on neighbors and friends. Now they also have support from the wider community.

LaRae, who sang original music at folk concerts and coffee houses from 2000 to 2002, recently recorded a Christmas album in the Colville language to raise funds, and is now preparing a fundraising show with classic country hits in Salish.

“I believe we are all connected.  I feel guided by the Spirit and my ancestors,” said LaRae, who believes, as her father taught her, that God is everywhere. 

“Every day when I wake up I give thanks for my life,” she said.  “Every day at the school, we greet the day with a song and drum ceremony to express gratitude for our lives, our families and the day.”

For information, call 325-2018 or email

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