Chinuk Wawa being taught at Willamina High School

01.13.2012 Dean Rhodes Culture, Education

At Willamina High School, Chinuk Wawa, the Northwest Native American trade language, is being taught this year alongside other foreign language staples, such as Spanish.

"I took one year of Spanish and then heard about this class," said Tribal member and high school junior Braden Ebensteiner. "I switched because I want to learn about my Native American culture."

"It's our culture," said Tribal member and high school junior Jade Colton, who took Spanish last year and is now taking Chinuk Wawa. "I'd rather learn about our culture."

It took some schedule shifting and paperwork to enable seven Tribal high school students to take the course this year, owing to the late scheduling of the class, but it is well under way, says Tribal member and Cultural Resources Program Manager Kathy Cole, who teaches the class.

Cole learned the language through a Tribal program.

The results already have been "impressive," she said.

Before Christmas vacation, for instance, Cole assigned students to produce a small book in the language of Grand Ronde's Tribal ancestors. "Something most adults could probably do by end of the year," she said.

Ebensteiner put together a book about bears while Tribal member Codie Haller, a sophomore, created a book on giraffes.

Cole also has taught the language to both pre-schoolers and adults in Tribal Education classrooms. Years ago, she taught the language for two years to a kindergarten class of 28 at Willamina Elementary School.

Little by little, Tribal education efforts are making their way into mainstream settings. The success is coming on the tails of many Tribal education and culture programs.

Among the students, for example, Jade Colton is granddaughter of former Tribal Elder Jackie Whisler, who started Chinuk Wawa classes at the Tribe and walked on in 2007.

"That makes it special," said Cole.

For Colton, her language and cultural education had an early start with the help of her grandmother. Jade's sister, Tribal member Justine Colton, has been similarly motivated. She is now taking Chinuk Wawa classes at Lane Community College.

Both sisters participated in internships at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where Tomanowos, the ancient Willamette meteorite, is on display.

Their father, Tribal member Mike Colton, who works at Spirit Mountain Casino, has asked them to teach him the language as their skills improve.

Tribal member Zoey Holsclaw, a sophomore in the class, has been involved in the Tribal Canoe Family. Her sister, Ali, also a Tribal member, teaches Chinuk Wawa at the Tribal Education Department.

Tribal member and sophomore Rilee Mercier took the course in Tribal pre-school years ago, but signed up again because she "wanted to learn more about the language." She also continues to learn about Tribal culture through Tribal Youth Education programs.

"Every person is different," said Cole, "but it takes dedication. That's for sure. We're surrounded by English, so you really have to make a choice that you're going to speak Chinuk."

"The goal is getting families to speak it at home," she said. That is encouraged in adult Chinuk Wawa classes and at quarterly Chinuk Family Nights, which are funded by a grant.

"It's going great," said Cole. "They're learning very quickly. In fact, I have to keep creating new curriculum. They're really picking it up."

The class includes Tribal history and culture as well as language, and includes stories about Elders who have come before today's students.

One of the things that make the class better, said Ebensteiner, is Cole's interactive style, which prompts student participation.

"I've also taken some of Eula Petite's lessons and translated them into Chinuk lessons," Cole said.