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SUSAN MATHENY/THE PIONEER - Tribal Culture and Heritage Director Valerie Switzler is working to preserve the department's fragile language archives by digitizing them.Growing up in Warm Springs, Valerie Switzler absorbed customs and routines from her grandmothers and other elders, but never understood them until she began studying tribal languages.


“If you listen to the stories and songs, and know the words, then you know why you do what you do,” she said of life on the reservation.

As the number of fluent tribal language speakers dwindles, Switzler, as director of the tribal Culture and Heritage Department, has been working to recruit new people to learn, teach and preserve the three languages of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs: Ichishkiin/Sahaptin (Warm Springs language), Numu (Northern Paiute language), and Kiksht (Wasco language).

Her efforts were recognized Jan. 9, in Washington, D.C., where she received the Excellence in Community Linguistics Award from the Linguistic Society of America at its annual meeting. She was nominated by her professor from the University of Kansas, and a linguist she worked with at the University of Oregon, and the Endangered Language Fund paid her airfare to attend.

Words of elders

As a child, she learned a few tribal language words from her grandmothers Madeline McInturff and Gladys Thompson, and her aunties. “They spoke Kiksht and would say things like “bau” (watch out),” Switzler said.

Except for the few words that slipped out, her grandmothers wouldn’t speak Kiksht in the home because of the trauma of boarding school days when students were beaten or had their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their tribal language. He mother also went to boarding school, but by then, the emphasis was on homemaking, cooking, clothing and being on time.

In the Warm Springs community, Switzler heard tribal words for numbers, colors, animals, and the language preserved in songs.

“In the 1970s, there was an attempt to teach tribal languages in the schools by my grandfather, Linton Winishut, who recruited teachers to teach words and sing Christmas songs in tribal language, so I guess I’m following in his footsteps,” she said.

“I started learning Ichishkiin first, which was my mom’s language. But my aunt told me I needed to work in Wasco (Kiksht), which was my dad’s language,” she said.

In Warm Springs, she worked for the Vital Statistics Department, then part time for the Healthy Nations Program. The part-time job allowed her to attend classes at Central Oregon Community College. In 1996, she was recruited by the Culture and Heritage Department to work as a computer programmer, putting together booklets, teaching materials, and radio scripts.

Some of her relatives, including Maryann Meanus and Adeline Miller, had worked for Culture and Heritage, which boosted her interest. She became a language teacher, then language coordinator, but realized she needed more training.

College studies

Switzler pursued a college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in American Indian Studies from Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas in 2008. “At Haskell, I learned you can stick up for your own self by knowing who you are and where you come from,” she said. Continuing, she obtained a master’s degree in Global Indigenous Language Studies from the University of Kansas in 2010.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Valerie Switzler with her award at the Washington, D.C. conference.Returning to Warm Springs, she was appointed the Culture and Heritage director, and started recruiting teachers and working to develop and preserve the department’s language archive.

Currently, on the reservation, there are 50 native speakers of Ichishkiin, one of Numu, and none of Kiksht, but there are three apprentices who are learning that language.

“We are working on building more (tribal language speakers) and have 40 active learners now. Central Oregon Community College asked me to set up a program to teach Kiksht, which is a 100-level college course. We have seven students from Warm Springs, Madras and Redmond, and this will be my third year of teaching it,” Switzler said.

At Culture and Heritage, she is building teacher bases for all three languages, and wrote and won a grant to train people. “I have five employees whose only job is to learn the language Ichishkiin, and another employee who is looking at getting an education certificate through George Fox for Kiksht. But we haven’t been able to find anyone for Northern Paiute (Numu) yet,” she said.

“What gets someone fluent is for them to work, practice and speak the language daily,” she said of the training program.

In 2011, a language immersion school was opened for 3- and 4-year-olds at the preschool, and an immersion program was recently started at Warm Springs K-8 Academy.

“It’s the Rise and Shine program, held before school for all ages at any stage of learning the languages. We’re currently gearing up five student teams to go to the Language Bowl in Pendleton in April, where they compete their knowledge of tribal languages against other teams,” Switzler said.

Language archives

In a program she developed, Culture and Heritage is working to digitize its linguistic and other archives before some of the technology deteriorates, including notes and books from the 1900s, films, reel-to-reel recordings, old photos, 1,300 audio cassettes of language recordings, and 684 video cassettes.

“We have a seven-year plan to digitize and make them available to the public, and are in our third year now,” Switzler said.

“Some are oral histories, where people were asked to tell their life story, about boarding school, or legends. I think it would be wonderful to hear my grandmother tell a story, or see a photo,” she added.

Awards ceremony

Arriving at the ceremony early, Switzler sat toward the front of the room, expecting maybe 40 people would be attending. But she was surprised when she was called up on stage for her award and turned to face the audience. “The whole room was filled with 500-600 people!”

She gave her acceptance speech in her native Kiksht language. “I thanked them for honoring me and for being there. I said it was an honor not only for me, but for my people,” she noted.

“I had just lost my 29-year-old daughter two months before, and it was a very emotional time for me. She was my best student and my shining star, and it took my going back there for me to realize how important this work was,” Switzler said, adding, “It was not about me, but about our way of life and about our people.”

“Our language defines who we are, and the key is in our songs, prayers and our history. Altogether they form the foundation for our sovereignty and who we are as a people,” Switzler said.

“Our kids have got to reconnect to their culture. The language promotes healthy living because it’s a connection to who you are,” she added.

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