MISSOULA – Every 40 days it’s estimated that a language somewhere in the world ceases to exist, taking with it shared communication, a common history, treasured traditions. For one University of Montana graduate student, saving her native language from a similar fate is both personal and professional.
Linguistics master’s student Aspen Decker, part of an ever-shrinking group of fluent Salish speakers, knows extraordinary efforts will be required to keep Salish from disappearing altogether. She is tireless in her commitment to preserving her Native culture and its language. She teaches Salish to her four children, promotes her culture through her job as an education coordinator at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture and speaks in the community whenever asked.
In September she helped kick off the Montana Book Festival, when she presented a land acknowledgment statement in Salish. She’s also in the process of launching a new student organization, the Indigenous Storytelling Club.
“The goal of the club is to create a greater representation of Indigenous ways of knowing at UM and to support the Indigenous student voice as a platform for social activism,” said Decker, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “We want to empower our shared voice to talk about issues like climate change, language revitalization and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis.”
For Decker, this calling to save her language began as a young child learning Salish from her great aunts – two were instrumental in bringing Salish language education to the Flathead Reservation – and deepened during her early education at the Nk̓ʷusm Salish immersion school in her hometown of Arlee.
“There was an elder at the school, Patlik Pierre, who taught me to speak fluently,” said Decker, who went on to serve on the school’s board of directors.
After graduating in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Tribal Historic Preservation from Salish Kootenai College, Decker taught Native American history at St. Ignatius High School and Salish as an adjunct instructor at her alma mater.
Now in her second year of her master’s research, Decker focuses on demonstratives – words or phrases that describe the spatial or temporal location of someone or something – in Salish, collecting data from first-language Salish speakers.
“Aspen appreciates that a linguistic approach to understanding language plays a valuable role in her own language learning and teaching” said Leora Bar-el, a professor in UM’s linguistics program. “As a Salish language learner and teacher, Aspen brings a unique perspective to our program, which we hope will inspire more Indigenous language learners, teachers and activists to pursue linguistics at UM.”
During the past two years, Decker has landed two grants to help in her work. With financing from the Endangered Language Fund, she is creating Salish curriculum using seasonally based interactive games. With an Indigenous Research Center Faculty Researchers Award, she is developing curriculum for a Plains Indian Sign Language course.
Geography and events, Decker said, both play a key role in Native languages. For example, the end of buffalo hunting impacted the sustainability of shared languages. If you aren’t gathering together, in other words, you aren’t sharing your language as widely.
“Place names and what we did in those places are very important,” Decker said. “Naaycčstm ‘place of bull trout’ is the name, for example, used for the Blackfoot confluence near Bonner. It refers to where we hunted and fished.”
This year, Decker joined the MMAC as its Native community and museum education coordinator. She serves a variety of much-needed roles in the position, said museum Director H. Rafael Chacón, including “being in the thick” of efforts at UM’s College of Arts and Media to welcome and support Native students. This includes conducting extensive interviews with the campus community, working closely with UM’s Office of the President and developing a marketing outreach campaign directed at Native and minority students.
At MMAC she is charged with injecting Native perspective into museum programming.
“Her priority is to make sure we have a Native voice present in every exhibit and program,” Chacón said, using the current exhibit, “Avis marvelous: Ornithology in 19th Century Art and Science,” as an example of how Decker has developed signage to lend native perspective.
Decker also is developing staff signage and a Native landscaping plan for UM’s new museum which starts construction this fall.
After years of practice and study, Decker said she’s achieved a level of comfort in Salish that she no longer translates from English in her head. The words flow as freely as they did for all those who started her on this journey, and she hopes with efforts made by her and her tribe they will flow freely for generations to come.
“I think my late great aunt Mary Lucy Parker would be proud to know that her great-niece only speaks Salish to her children,” Decker said, “and is keeping our language alive and thriving.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.