The Language of the Land

A people’s quest to save Lushootseed, the original language of Puget Sound.

By Eric Scigliano December 17, 2010 Published in the January 2011 issue of Seattle Met

LAST JULY A LANGUAGE TEACHER named Zalmai Zahir performed an audacious experiment, with himself as the guinea pig. He had been contracted by the Squaxin Island Tribe to ride with its members for two weeks on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, when nearly a hundred traditional canoes from scores of tribes cross the region’s inland waters. Zahir would do some paddling on the long haul from the southwest tip of Puget Sound to the remote Makah reservation, home of this year’s hosts. His unique role: to instruct other paddlers in the language of his heart—Lushootseed, the original language of the peoples that dwelt all around the Sound.

Though we give that language no thought, we all live with it—in the names that surround us, tongue-twisting even in anglicized, bastardized form: Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Skokomish, Skykomish, Swinomish, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Duwamish, Puyallup, Tulalip, Mukilteo, Muckleshoot, Skagit. Every day we butcher the name of the chief formerly known as siʔaɫ (pronounced “see-oth,” more or less), who’s famously said to have prophesied that “the streets of your cities [will] throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.”

If the spirits of Chief siʔaɫ‘s people don’t get back soon, they may not find anyone to talk to. A few years ago Lushootseed, once spoken along every shore and stream from the Skagit Valley in the north to Skookum Inlet in the south, reached the end of its natural life. Not a single primary speaker—someone who grew up speaking Lushootseed as a first language—survived; even the elders who learned it (imperfectly) as children from their parents and grandparents grew up speaking primarily English. It looked like one more speck of linguistic roadkill on the highway of globalization, one of the 3,000 languages (out of about 6,900 still spoken worldwide) expected to vanish before this century ends.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Zahir decided to take the dare that an academic colleague had posed, half facetiously, never expecting he’d try it: Rather than offering the sort of classes he’d conducted for years with the Squaxins and other tribes, he would speak, read, and as much as possible think only in Lushootseed. “Could I do it?” he wondered. How would it affect him and the people around him, many of whom knew no Lushootseed and none of whom were fully fluent in it? Would they avoid him or try to respond? Would he grow frustrated and weary, or more proficient? “Could I express complex ideas?” he asked himself. “Would I feel the need to resort to English in extreme situations?”

Using red yarn, Zahir tied an index card laminated in packaging tape around his neck. “ʔutxʷəlšucidəbəxʷ čəd,” it read. “I SPEAK LUSHOOTSEED. . . . Please accept my apologies in advance for not speaking English.” A few people shunned him, but most embraced his experiment; children were the most receptive, and the best at repeating his Lushootseed phrases. He found he could communicate what he needed to (with the aid of gestures, at which he is as expressive and uninhibited as any mime) with everyone he met—even in stores and restaurants along the way.

Those who knew any Lushootseed at all put it to use. “A few surprised me, for they previously spoke very little or no Lushootseed at all,” Zahir wrote in an account of the trip posted (along with the journal he kept in Lushootseed) on his site, One friend who’d claimed not to know much Lushootseed pitched in as interpreter, translating what he said into English. Zahir was especially gratified to discover that his example prompted people from faraway tribes to speak in their languages. “One woman told me in Athabascan she was Tlingit [from Alaska], but then told me she lived on the Zuni reservation and began to speak Zuni.”

As he neared the end of his two-week vow Zahir found it harder to stay in linguistic character; he strained for words (even his Lushootseed vocabulary is far from complete) and his thoughts drifted into English. But his experiment was a milestone. He had spent longer living in Lushootseed than anyone had in decades.

Though Zahir himself would modestly refuse the honor, he may be the most fluent Lushootseed speaker now alive. And, as his name suggests, he did not come to his cultural patrimony merely through an accident of birth.

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Zalmai, aka Zeke, Zahir (ʔəswəli in Lushootseed) looks much younger than his 47 years; with his dark hair and light skin, he could from any number of ethnic backgrounds. His mother was Nakota Sioux; his father was Afghan. They met and married when both were students, mom at the University of Southern California and dad at UCLA. His father’s family was prominent in Afghanistan during the country’s progressive royal era, before the Soviets, warlords, and Taliban blew it apart; his grandfather served as prime minister.

A colleague of his told me that, not Zahir himself; he avoids mentioning his family background. In his culture—the Puget Sound Salish culture—“you don’t want to seem more important than anyone else,” he says, invoking an untranslatable Lushootseed word to explain why: “siʔáb means an honorable person. It can be a chief or boss, but it reflects not how much you have but how much you give. Obtaining power in English is through aggression. Obtaining power in Lushootseed is through humility. So everyone is siʔáb except yourself. The moment you say you are siʔáb, you are no longer siʔáb.”

What’s your name? The frog answered wáq’waq’, and that was its name.

Young Zalmai grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu in and around Seattle, but Indian country was never far away. His father encouraged his mother, a psychotherapist, to stay close to her heritage, and the family attended powwows and other gatherings. When Zalmai was three his parents broke up. His father returned to Afghanistan; he became the country’s ambassador to Kuwait and one of the few diplomats to hang on there through the Iraqi occupation and first Gulf War. At age nine, Zalmai visited the vast Navajo reservation, a pivotal experience in his emerging awareness of his Native American roots.

When Zalmai was 11 his mother married Don Matheson, the Puyallup tribal chair in the 1970s and a leader in the struggle for native fishing rights. The family moved from Seattle to the Muckleshoot reservation near Auburn, where Matheson had trust land.

Zalmai gained not only a stepfather—“the kindest man I ever knew”—but a heritage and a mission. Matheson, who died last October at the age of 86, infused his stepson with a deeper sense of native identity. “He taught me a great deal about culture and spirituality.”

“My stepfather said we didn’t lose our culture, it was taken from us. He said everyone around him spoke Lushootseed when he was little, in the late 1920s. Then one day everyone quit speaking it. He asked his uncle why. His uncle said the Indian agent told them they had to quit speaking the language and go to church. His uncle said those who didn’t obey just disappeared, no questions asked. I’ve heard things like that on various reservations—people would go into town and never come back.”

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, under the federal Indian policy known as assimilation, hundreds of thousands of native children were sent—sometimes voluntarily, often under duress—to off-reservation boarding schools, which tried to purge them of their “backward” ways and ready them for mainstream American society. They were forbidden from speaking their tribal tongues and sometimes beaten or fed soap for doing so. But prohibition does not persuade; often it merely fans desire. Don Matheson pined for the language denied him in childhood.

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VI HILBERT, aka taqʷšəblu, was born six years before Don Matheson, into the Upper Skagit Tribe and the last generation to speak Lushootseed at home. She was the only one of her eight siblings to survive childhood. They moved up and down the river, wherever the work was—logging, fishing, mending clothes, picking hops and berries. She followed a similar peripatetic course, working as a housecleaner, stock clerk, shipyard welder, secretary, and Boeing chuckwagon cashier. She packed pears in a cannery, wrapped cookies in a Danish bakery, waited tables in a Chinese restaurant, and ran a pool hall and cafe. In 1967 she was operating a little beauty parlor in her South Seattle home (in old photos, she’s always neatly coiffed) when she met a UW grad student in linguistics named Thom Hess.

Hess, working with a Nooksack elder named Louise George, refined a Lushootseed alphabet—derived from the Americanist Phonetic Alphabet, a system of about 100 letters (some of them upside down) and 50 diacritic marks used to record all the sounds of human speech—dating back at least to the very early twentieth century. (Around here the alphabet has become increasingly visible, if not readable for most of us, as Lushootseed words proliferate on historical signs, museum labels, and other public inscriptions.) Hess and George taped Vi Hilbert’s mother recounting a tale about a child-eating monster (think “Hansel and Gretel”) called Basket Ogress. While they were transcribing the tapes, Hilbert came by to see what he was up to. She was impressed with this white guy who pronounced Lushootseed correctly, and with an alphabet that captured all its puffs and swishes and glottal stops.

Thus began a collaboration that would become legend in the wide world of linguistics. Hilbert, who had never been to college, attended Hess’s UW class in what was then called “Puget Salish.” The next year he invited her to teach it. The two worked on lesson plans, a textbook, a Dictionary of Puget Salish, and the collection Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound, including “Basket Ogress.” (Audiences would interject “haboo!”—meaning something like “Yeah!” or “Right on!”—to encourage the storyteller.)

As early as 1922, amateur folklorists, foreseeing the demise of native tongues, had recorded the elders’ stories and recollections, first on wax cylinders, then on phono disks and reel-to-reel tape. In the 1950s a high school music teacher named Leon Metcalf toured local reservations filling miles of reel-to-reel. Researchers still occasionally uncover lost recordings: “You think you’ve got it all, and then more pops up,” says Zahir.

Trouble was, many recordings were of poor quality, and the linguists could not decipher them. Vi Hilbert, with her native ear plus Herculean determination and the aid of elders, could. She set about transcribing Metcalf’s tapes, collecting more tales, and publishing more volumes of stories, oral histories, and (with Zahir and several other collaborators) ethnographies. Amplifying and extending the scholars’ work, grounding it in the stories of the people—for without stories a language is just a fallow field—Hilbert carried forth what was as much a work of reconstruction as of documentation; like many of the world’s languages (and many biological species), Lushootseed only came in for study as it started to disappear, and many semantic and grammatical trails were already growing faint. “A vast wealth of information is now available solely because of her unflagging efforts,” Hess wrote in 1985, adding later, “I do not believe anyone can fully appreciate what Vi has accomplished with those Metcalf tapes.”

As important as her archival work was, Hilbert had an equally deep and much wider impact in the outside community. She continued teaching at UW for 15 years, inspiring and training hundreds of Lushootseed students, many of whom became teachers themselves. One of them was Don Matheson, who studied with her and Thom Hess and then set out to teach his stepson, using lessons and textbooks Hess and Hilbert had created.

Other preteens might bristle if a new stepparent made them labor to learn an esoteric language. Eleven-year-old Zeke Zahir took to it like a fledgling bird to air. He gleaned what he could from his stepfather, then studied with a Muckleshoot elder named Eva Jerry. “She had so much unconditional love,” he recalls. “She said, ’I’m not your teacher, I’m your káyəʔ’ ”—grandmother, a term of honor and endearment often used in Lushootseed, somewhat like “auntie” in Hawaiian, for an esteemed older woman. Finally he studied with the supreme linguistic káyəʔ, Vi Hilbert.

Scientists and philosophers will probably debate forever the linguistic chicken and egg: Which came first, the thought or the language to express it? Does worldview determine language or does language shape worldview? Or are different languages just alternate tools for expressing the same things? After being born into English (with Pashto standing by as godfather), then reborn in Lushootseed, Zahir has no doubt of the answer. “Our languages are not just special, they are unique,” he says with surprising vehemence. “They are sacred, they are holy, they have power in communities!”

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In Lushootseed he found a community of the mind and heart, a new way of being. And yes, there are things he can say in it that he could not say, or think, in English. The view of leadership and humility summed up in siʔáb, for one. And an even more fundamental concept, xəč (with the X pronounced like the Greek xi or Hebrew ch ). Sometimes it’s translated as “mind” or “thoughts,” but those aren’t quite right. “It’s the seat of your emotions, your thoughts—it’s not in your head, it’s not just in your heart, they’re combined. Elders have told me it was the first medicine given to people. Tibetan Buddhists use the term ‘heart-mind’—the best translation I’ve seen for xəč. But we don’t use that in English, and Buddhists say it’s not an adequate translation.”

The moment you say you are siʔáb, you are no longer siʔáb.

Vi Hilbert’s granddaughter Jill La Pointe is now trying to sustain her káyəʔ‘s nonprofit, Lushootseed Research, amid her own career teaching Indian child welfare at UW. “It gets back to what my grandmother always shared—Lushootseed expresses feeling,” says La Pointe, but then adds that it lacks English’s most exalted declaration of feeling: “There’s no simple way to say ‘I love you’ in Lushootseed. You can express different ways of being connected, different family relationships. You can say, ‘You are the one I desire.’ ” But no capital-L Love. Lushootseed also has “no simple goodbye,” says La Pointe. “We use different greetings.” Her favorite: "tixˇixˇdubut, dəč’uʔ kʷi adxˇəč. Take care of yourself, make yourself single-minded to avoid confusion. Some people shorten it to ‘Take care.’

“We also don’t have a simple ‘hello.’ We’d say, ‘My eyes have missed you,’ ‘How are you?’ Or if something was wrong the last time, ‘Are you well now?’ ”

A key difference from English lies in basic grammar. In Lushootseed sentences, verbs commonly precede subjects—“Chop I wood” rather than “I chop wood.” And what would take a verb and predicate adjective in English (“I am tired”) is relayed in a single verb: “Tired I.” In La Pointe’s view, this “deemphasizes the self.” More important, says Zahir, it “focuses on the action.” And, as we say in the news business, unburies the lede. “It’s not who does the work that matters, it’s that the work gets done.”

Even the two cultures’ theories of language express different worldviews. “A linguist will tell you Lushootseed came from proto-Salish, which developed into all the different Salish languages,” explains Zahir. “I believe that’s true—I have enough documentation to show that Lushootseed has been changing for the last 150 years. But if you ask an elder where our language came from, they’ll tell you it came from the earth, from the animals. People asked the frog, ’What’s your name?’ The frog answered wáq’waq’, and that was its name.” The crow became k’aʔk’aʔ, the seagull kiyúuqʷs. “The words are onomatopoeic, and because of that Lushootseed is the language of the land. In Lushootseed we can understand that, in English you can’t. You literally have two realities, and neither is wrong.”

But if you have no words to describe it, one of those realities atrophies—or gets bottled up and festers. From New Zealand to Hawaii to reservations across America, indigenous communities have supported language classes partly as a way to counter the temptations and ills of the modern world—alcohol, drugs, delinquency, despair, and suicide, dropping out of school and life. Learning the heritage language is commonly said to achieve this by instilling pride and a sense of community, continuity, and mission. Zalmai Zahir suggests it may fill an even deeper need: “The language has only been gone two or three generations. Those ideas still exist. People have the ideas, but they don’t have the language to describe them. Those ideas become fuzzy—‘I know I think that, but I don’t know why. . . .’ ” You need the language to find yourself.

For Michael Evans, the chairman of the Snohomish Tribe, Lushootseed was a lifesaver. Fifteen years ago, he says, “I was in an emotional crisis. I was in a deep, deep hole. Then I heard a voice say three times, ‘These are the good ways. These are the good ways. . . .’ ” The old ways. Determined to learn Lushootseed, he approached Vi Hilbert. “She answered just like an elder—she ignored me. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time I tried that she knew I would stick with it. She pointed me to ʔəswəli [Zalmai Zahir]. I found not just a teacher but a brother.” And a way out of that deep hole. “Language is the gateway, the portal from where I am now to where I want to be.”

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LAST MAY during a break at a conference held by Lushootseed Research, Vi Hilbert’s nonprofit, a droll pixieish Muckleshoot elder named Donna Starr—the daughter of Zahir’s káyəʔ Eva Jerry—led me through Seattle University’s native plant garden, reading its bilingual identification plaques. She drilled relentlessly till I managed to pronounce each name: t’áqa, salal; stəgʷád, salmonberry. “Don’t worry,” she said, as I tried to squish my tongue around the exotic formulations. “My mom used to tell me if you’re not spitting all over each other, you’re not speaking good Lushootseed.”

I didn’t remember any of the names till I looked them up in Hilbert and Hess’s dictionary. But since that stroll I seem to hear leaves rustling and boughs creaking in Lushootseed.

When Vi Hilbert died in December 2008 at the age of 90, gloomy prognoses arose for the future of Lushootseed. Thom Hess had already passed. How could the language go on without them?

Hilbert and Zalmai Zahir have taught the language to hundreds of others, and the lessons continue to ripple out. About 2,000 people around the Sound (whose tribespeople number more than 10,000) are currently taking or teaching classes in Lushootseed. At the Seattle University conference, teenagers and children stood up and introduced themselves in Lushootseed.

But the language’s diffusion is nearly as shallow as it is wide. “Some of the people we taught are very good,” says Zahir. “But a few learned 200 words, went back, and said, ’I’m a fluent speaker,’ and started teaching. Their students don’t know anything to compare it to. Many are now adopting English syntax, especially when they don’t know how to say something”—contriving unidiomatic literal translations of English terms, as rookie speakers do in any language.

Driven by these shortcuts, a new language is fast evolving—a hybrid like the Chinook jargon that was once this region’s lingua franca. “It’s a cross between pástəducid [English, literally "Boston speech” ] and Lushootseed," explains Zahir. “I call it pásləšuc. A whole grammar is being lost.”

For example, to say “My hand is strong” in English, Lushootseed uses the verb for being strong with a suffix for hand: “Strong-hand am I.” Such suffixes, along with Lushootseed’s action-emphasizing, ego-diminishing sentence structure, are falling out of use.

What to do? Nip the new jargon in the bud, purists say. Zahir takes a more nuanced view. “With a novice you allow room to play with the language. You don’t want to clamp down and stop them,” killing their enthusiasm. “I don’t want to be the language police. I want to say, yeah, you’re speaking good pásləšuc.” And to meanwhile further document, amplify, and establish real Lushootseed, finding new nuggets in all those tapes, unraveling how the language has already changed in the last 150 years to understand where it’s going today.

With Hilbert and Hess gone and their dictionary editor, Dawn Bates, now retired, Lushootseed will not have its own linguist, an arbitrator to sort out disputes and a nurse to see it through its rebirthing pains. And so this fall Zahir undertook his own radical change. He ceased teaching full-time and moved to Eugene to work toward a PhD in linguistics at the University of Oregon while working for its Northwest Indian Language Institute. Only that, he believes, will give him the tools needed to bring Chief siʔaɫ‘s language into the twenty-first century, to digitize its legacy, and to be "able to say to people, ’I have proof, it wasn’t just the people down the river who said it this way—your ancestors did, too!’ "

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I ASKED Zahir what Lushootseed’s odds were of reviving and surviving as a primary language and received a shock. “Zero,” he said, if it continued being taught as it is now. Aside from extraordinarily motivated and fortunate individuals like him, today’s system can’t create fluent Lushootseed speakers. A regimen of conventional language classes—the same way we teach, or pretend to teach, French and Spanish—only starts learners down the road.

One approach has worked to reinstate a dying language: total immersion. Israel undertook it on a national scale and resurrected Hebrew. In the 1970s and ‘80s cultural activists among New Zealand’s Māori and native Hawaiians fought successfully to establish full-time immersion programs that began with preschool “language nests” and moved up the grades along with their first students. Hawaii’s program reported better results than anyone expected: Not only did kids become fluent in Hawaiian, they did better at writing, math, and other subjects they studied in Hawaiian than those learning in English. And they had no problem transferring those skills to English, which they easily picked up outside school.

One local tribe, the Tulalips, is doing some small-scale immersion: Four days a week, elementary school pupils spend 45 minutes hearing nothing but Lushootseed. Refraining from English demands expressive theatrics and ingenious visuals to fill in the gaps; when Zalmai Zahir does it, as he did at the Lushootseed Research conference, it becomes performance art.

The Tulalip teachers would love to extend this 45-minute trial to all-day immersion. But that takes serious resources, both material and linguistic. Immersion programs, at least initially, can only take a small share of students; some tribal members inevitably complain about the expenditure, and about their kids getting excluded. The politics of language and of tribal identity are fraught; cooperation has not always flowed between the local tribes, for all their common heritage. And tribal administrators, like their counterparts in every other government, must balance unending competing priorities.

Zalmai Zahir knows all this, but he keeps pushing for total Lushootseed immersion. “I tell people it’s not the ‘best way,’ ” he says. “It’s our only choice.”

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