Tulalip ancestors’ language alive in spirit

TULALIP — The whoosh sound of Lushootseed filled the sanctuary at St. Anne’s Mission on the Tulalip Indian Reservation as Mass was celebrated Sunday, in part, in the ancient language of Coast Salish American Indian tribes.

Worshippers called, “Peace be with you,” and sang, “Lord, send out your spirit and renew the face of the Earth.” That was in English.

Then, they struck hand-painted drums made from stretched animal hide. Rhythmic tribal songs in Lushootseed filled the church.

Virginia Jones, 22, read scripture from the New Testament in Lushootseed while dozens of worshippers followed along with English translations in their service books.

Blessings were called out in Lushootseed while Dario MeGuire, 15, played a hand-carved flute. Archbishop Alex Brunett, on hand for the occasion, celebrated the marriage of tribal culture and Catholic faith.

Sunday’s service was the second of its kind. The first occurred this time last year, at a church in Seattle. Members of St. Anne’s Mission hope to make the service an annual event.

The people of St. Anne’s Mission have been waiting for this return to Lushootseed for decades. For some, the Mass was a sweet taste of a cultural resurgence. For others, it stirred painful memories of when speaking their language was forbidden.

“For some it is very traumatic, because they may have been raised in a Catholic atmosphere where they were punished for speaking their language, or they were raised in a board school where they were punished,” said the Rev. Jerry Graham, priest at St. Anne’s Mission. “To hear it spoken again in a white context is actually traumatic for some.”

The pieces of the service that were spoken in Lushootseed were many years in development, said the Rev. Patrick Twohy, a priest who has served Coast Salish American Indians throughout the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years. Twohy now lives in Seattle, where he ministers to urban Indians.

Members of the church began working with the Tulalip Tribes Language Department years ago, Twohy said. Jones, the woman who read scripture Sunday in Lushootseed, knew some phrases from her childhood, but began studying the language in earnest when she was in high school. Jones worked alongside Toby Langen, a linguist in the tribes’ language department, and others with knowledge of the language, to develop church-specific words and phrases.

It will be many years before an entire Mass can be conducted in Lushootseed, Twohy said. Very few tribal members can speak the language fluently, and it’s a slow process for linguists to record and analyze the words, sounds and concepts.

There’s also a question of worship, Graham said. Jesuit tradition requires that everything occurring in a Mass can be clearly understood by congregants. That was part of the reason that the Roman Catholic church approved Mass in languages other than Latin during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

If an entire Mass were to be conducted in Lushootseed, there would also have to be a written version in English through which worshippers could follow along.

Jones believes that more and more of the Mass at St. Anne’s will be conducted in Lushootseed as linguists continue their work.

“It helps us heal,” she said. “It’s our language, and it should be in our lives.”

The relationship many Coast Salish people have with their language is complex. Some elders say they can’t speak Lushootseed around white people without feeling the bitter sting of lye soap in their mouths, Twohy said.

It was cultural extermination, Twohy said, carried out by the federal government at boarding schools and orphanages where Indian children were sent in an effort to “civilize” them. If they spoke the language, they were punished. In some cases, their mouths were washed out with soap. In others, their tongues were pierced with pins.

The boarding school era faded away in the 1950s and 1960s, but experts have blamed a host of challenges, including multi-generational abuse and poverty, on the trauma inflicted there.

“When we look at indigenous people, we have a tendency to say either-or,” said Coll Thrush, a University of British Columbia professor who has studied Lushootseed and its relationship to Puget Sound history. “You’re either aboriginal or modern, you’re either native or assimilated. But if history shows us anything, it’s that native people as individuals and communities have been able to navigate this incredibly complex minefield.”

When Catholic priests and nuns first came to the Puget Sound region, many Indians welcomed the religion, but not in a way that rejected traditional longhouse culture and religion, Thrush said.

Tribal religions recognized a variety of spirit forces, including thunder, wind and other natural phenomenon, he said. As their world dramatically and rapidly changed after early contact with European settlers, some Indians believed that the new spirit force of the Christian god could be a key to dealing with their region’s transformation.

At early Catholic services at Tulalip the Latin liturgy was surrounded by Lushootseed songs, sermons and blessings. The Rev. Eugene Chirouse came to Tulalip in the 1850s, learned the language and held church services for the Tulalip people. When the federal government began trying to smother tribal culture, the language faded away.

On Sunday, Indian worshippers prayed and sang in a way that would have been familiar to their ancestors. The sounds echoed off the walls of the 104-year-old building, as though they’d never left.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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