In North Central Idaho, the Lapwai School District on the Nez Perce Reservation is reshaping the way students interact with their culture and carry it forward to future generations.
“Our main mission is to meet the unique cultural needs of our students,” says Indian Education Coordinator Iris Chimburas. “It has a lot to do with the way our students are being taught. We bring cultural relevance to the classroom.”
Since the late 1990s, Lapwai has offered the Nimiipuu Language Program to revive a language that was nearly lost. The language is taught through more than 300 documented Nimiipuu (nee-MEE-poo) stories, which offer cultural relevance and moral guidance deeply rooted in the place the Nez Perce call home.
“They are preparing our future leaders—training our students and teaching them to be our Nez Perce young adults,” Iris says of the language teachers.
The program started with six elders fluent in Nimiipuu assisting the language staff. Today, only two of the original elders remain: Bessie Scott and Florene Davis.
Thanks to the elders, the proficiency of the language teachers has grown.
At times, there was only one part-time Nimiipuu language teacher. Now, there are six teachers: five in the Lapwai School District and one in the Kamiah School District.
“Some tribes have no speakers left,” says Nimiipuu Language Team Leader Thomas Gregory, who grew up in Lapwai. “We’re fortunate we still have some speakers. If you aren’t speaking it, it will go away. When I was in high school, there was no way to learn the language.”
Now, students are learning the language and taking it home, he says.
In 2015, the Nimiipuu Language Program staff visited the Umatilla Tribe in Pendleton, Oregon, for a three-day workshop with Salish School of Spokane. The staff shared its teaching method, which involved starting with pictures instead of written words. The style harkens back to the way tribes learned their languages and passed down stories.
“It totally changed how we taught, fostering the natural learning process: recognition, comprehension and after that is two stages of production,” Thomas says. “The first time we saw the curriculum it didn’t seem like much, but it’s how you teach it.”
The classroom isn’t filled with thick textbooks, a white board covered in conjugated verbs, and pencil and paper for students to vigorously copy what is written. Instead, students are shown pictures, and they repeat words and phrases while learning Nimiipuu stories.
“The old curriculum has its use in some situations when you are trying to teach a writing system,” Thomas says. “It works a lot better when you talk to each other.”
From there, students work on phrases using imagery. They move on to questions,
the differences between sounds and words, and adjectives.
This helps students start to recognize the practical use of the language, Thomas says.
“I don’t usually write it down at first at all,” he says. “I’ll pull in the picture, repeat as many times as they can and associate the word with that language.”
Teachers incorporate image-focused activities and games to improve comprehension and create a fun learning environment.
Thomas then says all the words learned that day and has students repeat them. He shows students a picture and says two words. Students choose which one is correct. Thomas repeats this until the class understands the words, focusing on 10 images a lesson, with two lessons a week for beginner levels.
As students get older, they start learning grammar, including singular plural nouns, points of view, tenses, suffixes and prefixes, with the guidance of imagery and the written language.
“After we took the training, we really wanted to make it more of our own using some of those same techniques,” says Angel Sobotta, Nimiipuu language program coordinator.
That’s where the more than 300 Nimiipuu stories come alive in the classroom. The language staff has adapted the stories for beginner, intermediate and advanced learning.
“Our culture is in our stories,” Thomas says, noting they often are based on real historic sites.
As students become more confident speaking the language, Thomas has noticed their families and friends start to speak the language, even communicating on Facebook and texting in Nimiipuu.
“I wouldn’t speak it growing up at home, but when I got into middle school I got really interested and took it every year since seventh grade,” says Armani Bisbee, a senior at Lapwai High School. “I really enjoyed it in class and nowadays I’m trying to speak more often out of school.”
Armani and his mother started learning from each other. Two years ago, his mom took the Nimiipuu language class at Northwest Indian College in Lapwai.
“She would always ask me questions, or I would help her speak it,” Armani says. “When people ask me what a word means or how to say it, I am happy that other people are learning and know that I know about the language.”
Armani continues to improve his speaking skills and wants to learn to write the language. He says the stories help him connect to his culture.
“I enjoyed that there is much to learn and I get to learn about my heritage,” he says.
High school students such as Armani can apply their studies of Nimiipuu to their foreign language requirement at Lewis-Clark State College.
Language teachers know firsthand the ripple effect the language program has had on the community but say it will only remain successful if the language and stories continue to be passed from generation to generation.
“We never have enough time with them,” Thomas says. “All of a sudden they are seniors. I hope they stay with it. I give them as many tools as I can to stick with it.”
For the Nimiipuu language teachers, the program continues to evolve thanks to their elders and each other.
“We’re still learning ourselves,” Thomas says. “I say we will all know how good of a job we’ve done when I am the old man sitting in the corner watching you teach the language.”