For students, Tulalip Tribes’ native language a connection to the past

A long time ago, a young girl sat at the base of a cedar tree and cried.

She was all alone.

The tree asked why she was crying.

I am very sad, she said. I have no friends.

The cedar tree decided to distract the girl, and told her to pick up some of his roots.

You are going to make a basket, the tree said.

I don’t know how, the young girl said.

I will show you how, said the cedar tree.

In a classroom at the Hibulb Cultural Center at Tulalip, a group of mothers practice the pronunciation of a language that almost disappeared.

Generations ago, at government boarding schools on the Tulalip reservation, caretakers beat the young people who dared to speak their native language, called Lushootseed.

The women in the classroom say the words, taking great care. The sounds are foreign, with back-of-the-throat glottal stops, tongue clicks and exhalations from the sides of their mouths.

Lushootseed was the language of the Coast Salish people living along the inland waters of what would become Washington state. Included were the Snohomish, Skykomish and Snoqualmie, who now are part of the confederated Tulalip Tribes.

Throughout Western Washington, various tribes are working hard to keep the language alive, especially as the elders die, taking with them a firsthand knowledge of Lushootseed.

The women who make up the Tulalip Tribes’ Lushootseed Language Department are some of the few who speak it.

Natosha Gobin, 32, has been with the department since she was a Marysville Pilchuck High School student volunteering at the tribes’ annual summer language camp. She started her seventh annual language class for families in February; the eight-week class ended on Tuesday.

The women start this final class by practicing in Lushootseed some commands such as “wait,” “hurry up,” “get ready” and other motherly things they plan to say at home.

“Pronunciation is crucial,” Gobin says. “You don’t want to ask your daughter to brush her hair and then have it sound like you want her to brush her squirrel.”

Using Lushootseed is not a female-only avocation. Some dads attend class when they can, but it’s primarily mothers in their 30s who have the passion for it.

Their children, who soak up the Lushootseed they are taught in their Montessori preschool on the reservation, color pictures of animals and birds in an adjacent classroom and practice the Lushootseed words for them. Occasionally a child runs into the adult classroom to exchange a picture for a kiss.

“When I think about traditional upbringing of children, the women took the kids along when they dug roots and went clam digging, while the men hunted and fished,” Gobin said. “Educating the children was a mother’s job, and that still carries through in many ways. It’s the nurturing and mothering bone in our bodies.”

So the young girl gathered up some cedar tree roots to make a basket.

When she was done weaving as the tree had instructed, she showed off her basket.

Go to the river, the cedar said to the girl. Dip the basket in and gather up some water. Then bring it back.

But the water was dripping from the basket and by the time she got back to the tree it was almost empty.

The cedar tree told the young girl to weave the basket again. This time, the tree said, it must be tighter.

The girl was upset, but she did not give up.

Before the settlers, Lushootseed was spoken from south Puget Sound near Olympia north to the Skagit River watershed, and from Hood Canal east to the Cascade Range.

It was not a written language.

Northern Lushootseed was used by the Skagit, Samish, Swinomish, Stillaguamish, Sauk-Suiattle and others. Southern Lushootseed was the language of the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Nisqually, Skokomish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie and others. The Snohomish people spoke a mix of northern and southern dialects.

In the 1960s, a few elders in the region could still tell the ancient stories of the Coast Salish people.

That’s when Vi Hilbert, a member of the Upper Skagit tribe, began to help University of Washington linguist Thom Hess and music teacher Leon Metcalf record the language. Hess devised the system for written Lushootseed, with a symbol for each sound. Hilbert, who died in 2008, went on to become a revered teacher of the language and the author of numerous books.

In a video recording of Hilbert made a few decades ago, she talks about believing that the Creator had wrapped around her the work of keeping Lushootseed alive.

Natosha Gobin shares the feeling.

“This is what I was meant to do,” Gobin said. “When I was a kid, I could say dog, cat, owl, goodbye and a cuss word. Now I dream in Lushootseed. My colleagues and I have attained a level of fluency. And we are better now than we were five years ago.”

The language department also includes Toby Langen, who learned Lushootseed from the Moses family and worked with Hess at the University of Washington; Michele Balagot, who teaches in the preschool, runs the summer language camp and has a master’s degree in education; and Michelle Myles, who teaches children and college students and has a bachelor’s degree. Four others are in training to be teachers who may soon help teach Lushootseed in the elementary schools and at Heritage High School.

Gobin, who earned an associate degree in Native American studies, has worked for the department for nearly 13 years.

A great-grandmother on her father’s side was one of those beaten for speaking Lushootseed.

“She didn’t want the family to be harmed, so she stopped speaking our language,” Gobin said. Along with banning the language among children, government officials tried to stop the practice of potlatches and other cultural traditions among the tribes.

“On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother Elsie spoke our language at home, as some people still do, with friends and family. My grandmother Della would sit underneath the kitchen table and listen to them joke and giggle together. That same great-grandmother also tried to keep the language going by teaching classes in the community. That’s where I get my passion for it.”

Not everyone shares that passion or can take the time to learn the language, Gobin said.

“We live in a fast-paced world and I understand that,” she said. “But we will keep trying to reach out to share it. That’s what my grandfather, Bernie Gobin, would have wanted me to do.”

The second time the young girl came back from the river, only about half the water had leaked out of the basket.

She tried a third time, but the basket was still not woven tight enough and a few drops leaked out.

On the fourth try, she did her best work.

She returned to the cedar tree with the basket full of water.

Your basket is very nice, the tree said. You did such good work and you did not give up.

The first hour of the family language class is spent eating supper, usually pizza and salad. It’s a time to relax and share the news of the day. After the children are dismissed to their activities, the parents get to work.

This year, the class curriculum focused on words and phrases that could be used in everyday conversation at home. The goal is to keep the children speaking what they have learned already, Gobin said.

The moms ask Gobin for resources, such as flash cards, translations of family songs, framed phrases to hang up around the house and a phonetic pronunciation guide.

The word in Lushootseed for sibling is very similar to the term for cousin. Since many of the women in the class are related, there is a familial atmosphere.

“The women here are comfortable with each other. We want the same thing,” said Udora Andrade, 31, a mother of two. “We want our kids to understand the ancestors and claim the cultural habits.”

Clarissa Young-Weiser, 30, is Tulalip and Shoshone-Bannock. She and her children, Erwin, 8, and Calista, 5, often practice Lushootseed or listen to recordings of the language in their van on the way to school or the store.

With the kids confined in the car, it is a good time for them to help her refine her pronunciation.

Young-Weiser plans to take Gobin’s class every year and each summer to put her children in the language camp. It is important because she grew up without a focus on American Indian culture, Young-Weiser said.

“At one point, I thought about learning another language, like French, but later it clicked for me that I really didn’t want a foreign language, I wanted my language,” she said. “I want my kids to be able to speak to each other in Lushootseed. I want them to know who they are. I want them perhaps to have the honor of being asked someday to offer up prayers for the community in their tribe’s language.”

Norene Warbus, 32, married into the tribe. She and her husband, Shane, teach their children at home, where they work on Lushootseed together.

“I want my children to be able to tell the tribe’s stories in their language,” she said.

Her friend Zee Jimicum says her own focus on the language is not about studying the past, but looking to the future.

“I wasn’t raised at Tulalip, so I missed out on traditional storytelling,” Jimicum said. “So for me, it’s about revitalizing the language and the culture. Besides, when I use one-word Lushootseed commands on my kids, they say ‘Ooh-kaay.’”

Brianne DiStefano, 33, is taking college courses in Lushootseed, as well as the family class with her children.

“It’s an enlightening process, getting to know more about one’s own people and the way they thought,” DiStefano said. “It’s not surprising that the class is mostly women. The Idle No More movement, which is sort of the American Indian Movement of today, was organized by native women in Canada. As mothers, we care about tribal sovereignty, the environment and natural resources. We’re not just thinking of ourselves, but of everyone who lives in America.”

Now, take your basket and give it to the oldest woman in the village, the cedar tree told the young girl.

The girl was upset about having to give away her first basket, but she loved the elders.

Back in the village, there was a gathering. The speaker granted the girl permission to present her basket.

The oldest woman in the village was happy and excited to receive the young girl’s first basket.

The woman knew how difficult it had been for the girl, but she was pleased that the skill had been handed down.

— “Her First Basket,” a traditional Coast Salish story

At American Indian naming ceremonies, funerals, potlatches and other gatherings that require witnesses, traditional items are given to those witnesses. Children of the Tulalip Tribes learn to respect the speakers at these events and to listen intently. They also learn that when they first make a craft, it must be set aside to be given away at a gathering.

The grandparents at Tulalip are always pleased about young children learning traditional ways, Gobin said.

“I yell at my kids, but I want them to learn all the teachings. I want them to be seen and not heard,” she said. “It is not for my benefit. It is so they learn to be good people.”

Gobin has four children: KC, 7, Kane, 6, Katie, 4, and 2-year-old Aloisius.

They understand her commands in Lushootseed, and most of the time they comply. The language is part of the routine at home.

“In a world where they will be labeled, often negatively, I hope my children will know who they are,” she said. “The words of our language have depth and are empowering. It feels spiritual to speak it and to understand it. It teaches our values, such as respect for one another and the world around us. Sometimes we forget what is important and what life is really all about, but the language connects us with our ancestors.”

When Gobin was pregnant with her oldest child, she had the idea that she would raise a first speaker of Lushootseed and not immediately speak English with him.

“The hard part was that I wasn’t as fluent back then and I was really the only one around him speaking Lushootseed,” Gobin said. “When KC got to preschool, he came home and said, ‘My teacher, Miss Virginia, knows how to talk like you, Mom.’ I told him, ‘It’s our language, son.’ Then I realized my kids were thinking their mom was a nut case. They thought what I was saying wasn’t real. I told KC, ‘It’s real, son. It’s real.’ “

At the last class on Tuesday, Gobin thanked her students and presented Tulalip language department T-shirts to all.

“Without you,” she said, “I am just that crazy lady talking to myself. You make my job worthwhile, because it’s not about me, but about a language that belongs to a whole region of people.”

Gobin said she will never stop teaching or speaking Lushootseed.

“I’m a lifer. I will not give up. I will be one of those elders who talks to the kids and continues to tell our stories.”

Listen and learn

Learn more about Vi Hilbert and hear her tell stories in Lushootseed and English at

Learn more about the Tulalip Tribes’ Lushootseed Language Department and its classes, and check out audio and video clips at

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