Klallam dictionary opens window into tribal heritage
A three-decade effort to preserve a native language has resulted in the first-ever dictionary of the language, which previously was only spoken.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It weighs in at nearly six pounds, fills more than 1,000 pages, and represents the work of many hands and hearts.
The Klallam people’s first dictionary for what was always an unwritten language was built syllable-by-syllable, from tapes and spoken words transcribed into a phonetic alphabet.
The work was a race against time: About 100 people spoke Klallam as their first language when he first began learning Klallam in 1978, said Timothy Montler, a University of North Texas linguistics professor, and author of the dictionary. By the time the dictionary was published by the University of Washington Press last September, only two were left.
One of them, Lower Elwha Klallam elder Adeline Smith, 94, was recently working with Montler during one of his twice-a-year visits to the tribe’s reservation, helping to transcribe Klallam stories into written words. Over many years she contributed 12,000 words to the dictionary, by Montler’s count. Some 38 elders in all helped him compile the entries.
The language is a jawbreaker for English speakers, with some words containing back-to-back consonants that are true pronunciation gymnastics. Klallam is the native language of the 5,000 or so people who today live on and around the three reservations on the Olympic Peninsula at Elwha, Jamestown and Port Gamble, and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Beecher Bay.
The language is a window into a way of life: The plural conveys not just the idea of more than one, but of a collective. The Klallam word for “sky,” for a people for whom Nature is central, can also mean “universe.” It takes four words in English to say “walking along the water.” It takes only one in Klallam.
KIallam people from all over the Peninsula and beyond turned out for a recent signing ceremony for the dictionary in Port Angeles. Some cradled the book like a baby. Many already had decided where such an important book would be kept in their home: with their drum and rattle, or on the Shaker altar, or by the bed.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said elder Phil Charles, a former tribal-council member. “It is one of the things that was beat out of us, and that we were told was evil,” he said of his native language, which Klallam children of his generation and earlier were discouraged — or even punished — for speaking when they went to school.
“I just wish our elders who are gone could see this day. My mom and my dad probably wouldn’t even believe it.”
The dictionary is just part of a much larger Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe effort, begun in 1991, to revive their language and culture.
It started with a concerted effort to bring back songs that had been sung by their elders. Today, the tribe’s language teachers provide classroom instruction in tribal language, history and culture from Head Start all the way through high school.
And at the Port Angeles public high school, Klallam is one of three languages, along with French and Spanish, that any student may take to earn their language credits to graduate.
Jamie Valadez, Klallam language instructor at the high school and a Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member, said it is exciting to see the students she first started teaching 15 years ago begin to have kids of their own, and pass the language on to them.
“It’s working,” she said, “We have turned the corner, where the language is going on into the next generation. Now we just have to keep it going.”
At Dry Creek Elementary School, a Port Angeles School District public school, kindergartners work in classrooms with the Klallam and English words for the numbers one through ten on the walls.
Little kids were gleefully calling them out in a recent session with Klallam language teacher Wendy Sampson. “You’ll be counting to 100 by the end of the year,” she predicted as the kids shouted “thank you” in Klallam.
Providing Klallam language, history and culture in the public schools not only helps the tribe’s children learn their heritage, but kids from the surrounding community know their neighbors. “They are just surrounded by it as part of everyday life,” Sampson said. “It breaks down barriers, their eyes are opened before they learn to shut them.”
For younger tribal members, the language is the touchstone that tells them who they are.
“I knew I was native, but I didn’t know what kind,” said Harmony Arakawa, 24, one of the tribe’s three language teachers today. She first learned Klallam in Valadez’s class in high school, and then stuck with it, until becoming a language teacher herself — and passing it on to her children.
“I would not understand fully who I am without my culture and language,” she said.
Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, said the tribal council pre-purchased 1,000 copies of the dictionary, to distribute one for free to every tribal household, and offer for sale (for $85) at the tribe’s Heritage Center in downtown Port Angeles.
“It holds so much, every word in there brings back stories, relationships,” Charles said. “It’s a whole different world.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.