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Language and the Lummi

By June 21, 2019 7 Comments

After just about forty years of teaching students from all over the continent, I came to believe, grudgingly, that no geographic group adored their “homeland” with more lovesick passion than kids from the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds, being away, brayed like starved mules the whole time they were marooned here in Iowa, as if home was life-breath–oh, how perfectly gorgeous those Olympics were, or how blessed it was to grow up at the foot of Mt. Baker. Plainsmen like me had to learn how to walk away graciously.

I never taught a Lummi student, but there’s no reason to assume Native kids from the Pacific Northwest would be any less stricken. The Lummis, also known as Lhaq’temish(LOCK‐tuh‐mish), or “People of the Sea,” live and have their being straight west of Bellingham, Washington, on a seaside reservation that includes a lot of water and has been their home (take a breath here) for roughly 12,000 years. 

Stunning, isn’t it?–12,000 years.

A decade ago or so, I talked to a Lummi elder, who showed me around his world. There we stood over the precious waters home to so much of their diet and the heart and soul of their traditions. He was a proud man, proud of his homeland, proud of his people. When we got on the subject of the Lummi tongue, he beamed when he described the newly instituted language program they were developing in Lummi schools. Then he said this: “In five years maybe, we’ll have all our kids speaking the traditional Lummi language.”

Sure, I thought. Fat chance. If those kids spent their mornings watching Spongebob Squarepants, English was going to be tough to strike. Their tribal language, their version of the North Straits Salish language, no matter how beloved, was still going to sound, well, foreign to their kids.

Up on the Ojibwa reservation in northern Minnesota several years ago, a man who could still speak the old language told us he thought there were less than ten like him. I’ve been around enough Navajos to know that they too worry. What I’m saying is, that Lummi elder could well have been Lakota, Omaha or Osage. Among Native tribes across the land, re-engaging people with traditional language has become something of a sacred mission, and a commendable one, I’ve always thought, but more than a little pie-in-the-sky in a media-saturated environment. 

Strangely enough, it took a Jewish writer describing the Hebrew language for me to be less cavalier about such projects, even though his arguments had nothing to do with reservation life or crimes perpetuated in the name of Manifest Destiny. What Robert Alter does in The Art of Bible Translation is make dozens of Old Testament stories come alive simply by unpacking the nuance the original Hebrew language brings to those tales. What’s more, he illustrates vividly how flat biblical stories can be rendered when a translator, no matter how devoted, fails to attend to traditional usages.

My grandmother, raised at the turn of the 20th century in the Oostburg (WI) Dutch Reformed Church, told me she had memorized the Heidelberg Catechism in the Dutch language, even though she couldn’t speak much of it herself–her great-grandparents had immigrated in the late 1840s. For most of my life when I’d tell people that story, I’d giggle at the nuttiness. Still do, a little.

But having read some of Robert Alter, I’m not so quick to think of that rigidity as dead orthodoxy or plain pig-headedness.  I’m far too old to campaign for Dutch language training in Sioux County schools. Besides, it would make no sense.

But neither will I snicker as I once did about that Lummi elder’s linguistic passions a decade ago. Nor will I giggle at my ancestors’ fool stubbornness about worshiping the Lord in English. The Bible taught me not to.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Language is the house of being. Heidegger.

  • Stephen Staggs says:

    As you so eloquently point out, the Lummi elder and Robert Alter are on to something. Language helps us see things differently. Language helps us learn about other peoples and cultures, including those we identify with. What’s more, the language of our ancestors is one of the most basic parts of our identity. If for no other reason than these, the Lummi elder would agree, Dutch language training in Sioux County (and in many other parts of Canada and the United States) makes a whole lot of sense.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you for this. You helped me have an attitude shift. My mother memorized her (Lutheran) catechism in German knowing not one word of the language. I always thought that giggle-worthy for the nuttiness. You gave me cause to reconsider.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    My wife’s grandmother spoke Fries (as well as Dutch) but she could not read or write it, as it was prohibited to learn such during her early years living in the Netherlands. After immigrating to the U.S, she added literacy in English to her abilities in Dutch; later in the 1970’s after the prohibition was dropped, she would receive postcards and letters from Frisian relatives, yet she couldn’t read them. She was even gifted a Bible in Fries translation, which she gave to me because I once expressed interest in it: “you might as well have it—I can’t read it.” I spent a summer doing some free-lance, free-association “translation,” using my KJV version and 1 college course-worth of linguistics/history of English/Anglo-Saxon, just to honor her bit of grief and frustration.

    • Henry Baron says:

      Jeff, I too grew up speaking Frisian (as well as Dutch) but had to learn how to read and write it later. Frisian was not taught in school, as it is now, but was never prohibited. Today Google Translation includes Frisian.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you for this post. I have spent more than 30 years living in the Pacific Northwest (where I now reside), punctuated by periods spent elsewhere. Like your students, I too have a “lovesick passion” for this place. That love of place is endemic here and has an outsized influence on our world view and our politics. That is even more true of the worldview of the indigenous people like the Lummi. Their language is intimately linked to their relationship with their environment, particularly salmon, but also the orcas. Recently, the Lummi have proposed trying to directly feed orcas with salmon because the orcas are suffering from lack of food and the Lummi want to preserve the orcas that live in the Salish Sea. Losing the Lummi language will also lose this intimate link between people and place forged over the 12,000 years that you mention.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Ah yes, at Calvin we have also noted the lovesick passion of the students from the Pacific Northwest. Few manage to endure the Midwest for the full four years.
    I can understand as one who grew up in that wonderland part of the country and who spent a sabbatical living on Lummi Island, the cabin window where I positioned my study desk looking out across water and evergreens toward Mt. Baker in the distance.

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