Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Students at Chief Charlo Elementary recently learned over 20 different signs from Plains Indian Sign Language through an initiative grant impacting education across the Missoula County district and beyond.

Aspen Decker visited Jennifer Carlson’s class recently to share cultural knowledge, history and language with students in the fourth-grade classroom, the Missoulian reported.

Decker is one of only a handful of people who can speak Salish fluently. She and her four children are now among the first generation of bilingual speakers of her community in nearly 75 years.

More than 200 Indigenous languages in the United States have gone extinct in the last 400 years, according to the Language Conservancy.

She was joined by her daughter, Maninłp Xʷełx̣ƛ̓cin, who is the same age as the students in Carlson’s class. Maninłp is the great-great-great-grandchild of Chief Charlo.

Decker started the lesson by speaking about the school’s namesake, Chief Charlo, or Słmx̣e Q̓ʷox̣qeys in Salish, meaning “Claw of the Little Grizzly.” He was head chief of the Bitterroot Salish people from 1870 to 1910.

Decker walked students through how to sign Chief Charlo’s name in Plains Indian Sign Language by making a motion for “little” with her right hand, placing her hands above her head, resembling bear claws, and then pulling her hands down to her waist.

Decker asked the students how long they thought the Bitterroot Salish people inhabited the area now commonly referred to as Missoula — some students estimated 100 years, another shouted out 10,000.

In reality, the Bitterroot Salish people have inhabited the area for closer to 14,000 to 16,000 years, back when Glacial Lake Missoula filled the valley, Decker said.

At that time, the area was referred to as Nmesulétkʷ, or “place of the freezing water.”

“So this is like the land that we’re on,” Decker said, extending an arm in front of her parallel to the ground. “The sign for cold and then a big water, it’s like you’re scooping up a bucket and then you’re going up to your face.”

The Salish language is incredibly nuanced and many of the words resemble what something looks like or how an animal acts. Some words are also derived from onomatopoeia.

The same can be said for many words in Plains Indian Sign Language. For example, the sign to describe a white tail deer mimics its tail as it runs away. There are 12 individual words to describe different developmental stages of a deer, Decker said.

“So our signs and the Salish language that goes along with it are descriptive of whatever those nouns are,” Decker said.

Later in the lesson, Decker explained the nomadic habits of the Bitterroot Salish people and their nuanced names for specific locations.

After Glacial Lake Missoula was no more, the Salish name for …….


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