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Native American language school forced to abandon traditional teaching in pandemic

Posted at 9:47 AM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-24 12:47:21-05

CUSICK, Wa. — The Kalispel Tribe of Indians has a culture forged in the mountains of Washington. It's a culture that generations have spent passing down, and now, because of COVID-19, sharing the ancient Salish language and the way of this tribe is getting tougher.

JR Bluff started a language program to not only teach adults Salish but to teach children the language in a unique, immersion school. The young students will spend a half-day at the public school across the street, then will come to the Salish school to take on all the usual subjects, which is taught in Salish.

Bluff saw great success with the program and hoped, despite the pandemic, the school could continue teaching students in-person. He feared video classes would leave many students behind.

So, the school began the year in person, hoping all the safety measures they were taking would protect their students and staff. For months, it worked.

"It didn’t really hit us hard until this winter," said teacher Jessie Isadore.

But then, she said, all at once, the virus ripped through their small community.

"Seven of our eight teachers have tested positive," said JR Bluff. "Pretty much, it woke people up, and it wasn’t just our school, it hit our community pretty strong."

Bluff moved the school to remote instruction and said they will reassess in January if they are able to bring students and staff back safely.

"Of course, we have hope that the new year will bring in health, and we will be able to safely open the doors, and once we do, the students we lost who re-enrolled with Cusick will be back in the seat with us," said Isadore.

Many of the students could not stay enrolled at the Salish school because their parents work and cannot help them with remote learning, so the immersion program is facing lower enrollment, too.

"Kind of in my life, I’ve always viewed hurdles, trees in the middle of the path, cricks to cross, mountains to go over, we’re kind of used to this," said Bluff. "Us saying, 'This is just a bump and we’re gonna get through this,' is what our students need."

"We’re not able to come together and gather like we used to, and sharing is a big part of who we are, but like JR said, that’s not going to stop our efforts to preserve our language and culture for generations to come. We're doing what we can and were going to figure it out," said Isadore.

Bluff said the online video classes are working for now, and he and his staff were pleasantly surprised to find that more families and parents are engaging with the Salish language while their kids are learning from home. Bluff said he hopes the silver lining of remote learning will be even more adults enrolling into the adult language program.

In the end, Bluff wants to preserve the sacred language and the culture he was born to carry, and he knows, no matter what, this pandemic will not stop his mission.