Making history by saving it: UW groups keep indigenous languages alive

Colleges and universities are helping to keep indigenous languages from dying out by informally offering the languages on campus or awarding college credit to students who can demonstrate proficiency.

When Alyssa Johnston and members of her tribe speak to one another in Quinault, they are often moved to tears by the knowledge that, at the turn of the century, the language was all but dead.

The last person who spoke fluent Quinault passed away in 1996. By using recordings of those who spoke the language in the 1960s, a handful of people in the Olympic Peninsula tribe are slowly and painstakingly piecing it back together — and teaching it to a new generation.

Last year, Johnston was the first person in recent memory to earn a world-language credit at the University of Washington by showing she had achieved “intermediate low-level proficiency” in that language.

Listen to Lushootseed

Listen to Upper Skagit author, teacher and linguist Vi Hilbert speaking Lushootseed on this website maintained by the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives:

The Tulalip Tribes also maintain a website of Lushootseed phrases at

“It’s everything to me,” Johnston said of the importance of reviving her tribe’s native tongue. “Language is culture,” she said, and the tribe “right now is literally making history” by bringing it back.

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That history is also being written on the UW’s Seattle campus.

Every two weeks, two separate groups gather around a table in one building or another to practice one of two indigenous languages: Southern Lushootseed, the common tongue of the Native American tribes that lived in this region, and Hawaiian, the native language of the indigenous people of Hawaii.

Chris Teuton, chair of American Indian Studies at the UW,…

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