Angel’s Journey: A Language Almost Lost
Angel Sobotta is a dedicated teacher of the Nimiipuu (nee-MEE-poo) language at Lapwai School District in Lapwai, Idaho. The Nimiipuu—also known as the Nez Perce people—are deeply rooted in the landscape they have called home for millennia. By sharing stories in the Nimiipuu language, Angel helps students and teachers reclaim their cultural identity for future generations.
Several of the sound clips used in this episode are courtesy of the www.nimipuutimt.org.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Chasity Anderson: Ruralite The Podcast is a production of Pioneer Utility Resources.
Chasity Anderson: Along the banks of the Clearwater River in Idaho, a large mound stands out from the surrounding geography. To the Nimiipuu people, this is sacred ground. It plays a central role in the creation story of this Native American nation — and it’s also at the center of efforts to keep their ancient language alive.
Chasity Anderson: The mound is known as Heart of the Monster.
Angel Sobotta: Tim’neepe – Heart of the Monster is an ancient story of the Nimiipuu, the Nez Perce people of the Columbia Plateau. This story takes place (Nimiipuu language) a long time ago before (Nimiipuu language) the human beings arrived. (Nimiipuu language) A long time ago, when only the animal people lived on the land (Nimiipuu language) when the animal people could talk to each other (Nimiipuu language) when (Nimiipuu language) coyote had special powers and often was the hero, (Nimiipuu language).
Chasity Anderson: This creation story begins with Coyote hundreds of miles away from his homeland, building a fish ladder for the salmon to swim upstream to provide food for his people. Fox comes to tell Coyote that all the animals have been swallowed whole by a monster.
Chasity Anderson: In this ancient tale, Coyote journeys home to save those trapped inside. After being swallowed himself, Coyote leads the other animals in a battle inside the monster. They defeat him, and his parts are used to create the Native American tribes of the West. Coyote then sprinkles blood from the monster onto the land — and from that blood, the Nimiipuu were born.
Chasity Anderson: Angel Sobotta brings this story to life as a way to preserve the culture and language of her Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce, people. She is the coordinator for the Nez Perce Language Program for the Lapwai School District in Lapwai, Idaho. Sobotta’s interest in the language of her ancestors began at a young age when community leaders were visiting her school to teach it to students.
Angel Sobotta: So it was third grade, and I know that some of the students older than me were getting it in high school by the same teacher. And then after I got up to middle school, high school wasn’t offered anymore. And so, but I always had that connection, that desire to learn. And so the third grade really started it for me. And before that, it was just a little bit of words here and there that we kind of all grew up knowing, and we felt it was kind of cool because it was like a code talking to each other. So, yeah, the third grade was just really pivotal for me. And so it just brings excitement to know that, wow, that really affected me. [It had] a major impact as a third grader.
Chasity Anderson: Learning words and phrases from her ancestral language not only connected Sobotta with her heritage, but it also gave her a sense of accomplishment.
Angel Sobotta: I was good at it, and it made me feel smart. And so which for a Nimiipuu, you know, a person to be good at their own language, you know, or be good at something that other people aren’t. I guess, showing the most smarts was also significant, too, because it was something that I excelled in, and I was good at. And so it built my self-esteem to know that I was excelling in my own language, and so I felt smart. Where other times, other things I would be, you know, learning or whatever, I didn’t feel as as smart. Goes to show that it’s, you know, my indigenous innate type of knowledge that is meaningful. And once you put meaning behind something you’re learning, you grasp onto it so much more. And so some of the other subjects, which, you know, maybe I’m not grasping onto to it as much because it’s not my way of knowing. And so I have this heart, you know, relationship with my language, whereas the other subjects are kind of foreign to me.
Chasity Anderson: After graduating high school, Sobotta attended Washington State University in Pullman and the University of Washington in Seattle. After college, she worked in the city at the Indian Heritage High School teaching a culture class. She created her own Nimiipuu club while living in Seattle to learn and share the language and culture. Yet, for her to truly revive her language, Sobotta needed to return to the place where her culture was alive all around her — including the traditions and the landmarks that shaped her ancestors for centuries.
Chasity Anderson: Sobotta returned in 1997 and began her journey of learning and teaching the Nimiipuu language. She took a part-time position with the Nimiipuu Tribe Cultural Resource Program to create a language curriculum while taking Nimiipuu language classes at Lewis-Clark State College. Through the help of tribal elders, Sobotta and her co-workers created the Nez Perce Language Program for the Lapwai schools.
Chasity Anderson: Today, the program consists of six teachers, five in Lapwai and one in Kamiah. All have received training from the Lewis-Clark State College Niimiipuu language classes. Students in Lapwai start learning Niimiipuu words in preschool. Teachers spend time with students throughout their education there, and the language classes become part of the weekly curriculum from grades 6 through 12.
Chasity Anderson: The program includes a website where students, and the public in general, can learn to speak the Nimiipuu language through numerous lessons and modules.
Nimiipuu Language Recording: Good morning — tá’c méeywi, tá’c méeywi. Good afternoon — tá’c haláxp, tá’c haláxp. Good evening — tá’c kuléewit, tá’c kuléewit. Good night — tá’c cik’éetin, tá’c cik’éetin.
Chasity Anderson: The examples go beyond basic words to helping students have everyday conversations.
Nimiipuu Language Recording: Now the food is done — (Nimiipuu language). Let’s all pray — (Nimiipuu language). Now let’s eat — (Nimiipuu language). Thank you, I ate well and am full — (Nimiipuu language).
Chasity Anderson: With lessons based on these skills, plus the CNAs — colors, numbers and animals — students build a solid foundation in the language of their ancestors. But Nimiipuu really comes alive for them when they study the “Heart of the Monster.”
Nimiipuu Language Recording: (“Heart of the Monster” recording in Nimiipuu language)
Chasity Anderson: In 2013, Sobotta received her master’s from the College of Education at the University of Idaho, where she focused on learning language through stories. As her final project, she created a play based on the Heart of the Monster story. Through spoken word and body language, along with translation, the production brings new life to the stories passed down by Nimiipuu people.
Chasity Anderson: Harold Crook is a professor at Lewis-Clark State College. He was director of the original production of “Heart of the Monster.”
Harold Crook: Angel had the original idea to simply record a soundtrack and essentially have the actors lip sync while the play is taking place. The reason for that is because the language is so really, really difficult. I felt as we were rehearsing that it just wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t be vital. It wouldn’t really speak to the crowd. And when you’re doing a play, whatever you’re doing, it needs to be number one about the audience. (Nimiipuu language) These being my students, I looked at them and I thought, “No, you guys can learn the lines. And if you do, it’ll be just so fantastic.” It’ll just have a greater impact. And also, I think, have a greater impact on the actors because they’ll be learning the lines, speaking as Coyote and as the Fox (Nimiipuu language).
Chasity Anderson: Beyond its cultural impact, Sobotta hopes the play instills a deeper sense of understanding about who the Nimiipuu are as individuals and as a people. This sentiment was captured in her closing remarks to the audience of one of the play’s first performances.
Angel Sobotta: Wisdom sits in places and the land and the people and the stories and in the language. And we want to share with you just different aspects of our story, of our creation story and how our people live up to the story. And living up to the story, we want to instill in them (Nimiipuu language) in the children (Nimiipuu language),all children, all people, all Nimiipuu that we were created to be strong, powerful, intelligent people, Nimiipuu. That we could look at our stories and really take those values and really just live up to those aspects.
Chasity Anderson: A new level of learning begins for students beyond the stage and the classroom, when they can visit the sacred site and see it for themselves.
Angel Sobotta: And so before we go there, of course, we prepare them, and we show them the site. You know, and right now we have pictures, but also Google Earth is a good resource, you know? So when we get there to the actual site, they have already reviewed it and you know, we’re going to go to Tim’neepe. You know, and so we go there and it’s this, you know, the mound. And that’s where the heart place, and that’s where the monster, the rest of the monster is. And his body — his, her, who knows what the monster was — the body parts are thrown in different places. The liver is in a different place, but the heart is right there. And it’s like this mound, but it’s all fenced up. It’s part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. And they also have this kiosk where you push a button and you have an elder telling the story both in the language, nimipuutímt and both in English. And I tell them to sit and listen to the (Nimiipuu language) the elder. When I teach and if I have recordings, I really do like them to try to listen to our elder’s speaking voices. Because although I teach them the language are our elder speakers, they just have that really Nimiipuu sound. And I try to sound like them, but I know it doesn’t come through all the way as they have just that richness of speaking nimipuutímt. And so then they listen to that, but I ask them to listen to some of the words. What are some of the words that we’ve gone through that you might be able to pull out from just only hearing it in the language? And so then after we do that, they do say, well, I recognize this word and that word or this phrase. And then, of course, that’s for the younger group. If we did have more time, the older groups, they have more time, you know, you can get more out of them at the site by maybe having them really recite a phrase, a long phrase, a difficult phrase from the story, and then they hear it in English.
Chasity Anderson: In some respects, Sobotta’s story mirrors that of Coyote, who returned home to help his people and secured their heritage in the process. Her work is about helping students of today take the stories of the past and carry them into the future. And as she does so, she can’t help but think of that young girl in the third grade many years ago whose heart was captured by the language of her ancestors, stoking a fire whose flame continues to burn today.
Angel Sobotta: What we’re teaching them now from the babies on up, it’s those seeds are planted and planted more richly than what I received. But just that one seed was rich enough to keep me interested and always wanting more. Wanted to be fed, more of the magic seeds.
Chasity Anderson: This episode is a companion to the written series “The Learning Curve,” which you’ll find on the pages of Ruralite Magazine and at ruralite.com. This series is a production of Pioneer Utility Resources with a generous and thoughtful support of the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust, helping community focused organizations across the Pacific Northwest sustain their missions. Our show’s producer is Stephen V. Smith. Our editor, Leon Espinosa. The series narrator is yours truly, Chasity Anderson. Our engineer is Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio. This episode was written by Stephen V. Smith and Victoria Hampton. It’s based on the Ruralite Magazine story by Victoria Hampton. This episode contains copyrighted material courtesy of the Nez Perce Language Program. A special thanks to Angel Sobotta for generously sharing content and materials. We hope this episode honors her work and the heritage of the Nimiipuu people.