LaRae Wiley

Sinixt (Lakes) Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a fourth year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. Beginning in 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 over two years to support fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. In 2022 and 2023, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $75,000 fellowships each year.

From Tragedy to Hope: A Journey to Reconnect with a Native Language and Culture

LaRae Wiley, a 2023 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow, is co-founder of a language immersion school called Salish School of Spokane (SSOS).

A series of tragedies in LaRae Wiley’s family separated her from her Indigenous Sinixt culture when she was 13 years old. Within a span of 20 months in the mid-1970s, her Auntie Gale was the victim of a still unsolved murder on the Colville Indian Reservation, and both her grandmother and great-grandmother passed away, taking their fluency in the Salish language with them.

These resilient Sinixt women had been the cultural backbone of Wiley’s family, but they never taught Salish to Wiley’s father. Like many other boarding school survivors, they held back their Indigenous language from their children in order to protect them from the violence and discrimination they had endured. Because of these losses at a critical time in her life, Wiley lost touch with her Indigenous culture.

But the voice of Wiley’s ancestors came calling when she was in her mid-30s. At the funeral of her great-uncle, she learned that he had been the last fluent speaker of n̓səl̓xčin̓ (Colville Salish) in her family. She was shocked because she had never heard him speak one word of it in all the time they had spent together. “It just shook me, and I decided to learn the language for my two kids and future grandkids because my family had lost so much already,” recalls the former high school history teacher and professional musician. It was an epiphany for her, she explained. “I really wanted to be connected to my culture again.”

Now 60 years old, with five grandkids, Wiley has spent more than two decades developing her own language fluency and blazing trails in the preservation of the “extremely endangered” n̓səl̓xčin̓ language. In 2010, she and her daughter, along with other Salish women, founded an n̓səl̓xčin̓ immersion school called Salish School of Spokane (SSOS).

The Salish School of Spokane is a childcare center and private school that serves 35 students, ages 3 to 13 years.

Under Wiley’s leadership as executive director, the school has grown from an experimental home daycare to become a well-developed childcare center and private school that currently serves 35 students, ages 3 to 13 years. SSOS also has a strong adult education program, with 26 employees receiving daily, intensive n̓səl̓xčin̓ training, while another 45 adults participate in evening and weekend n̓səl̓xčin̓ classes. Salish School of Spokane now has an annual budget of $2 million, and is a national leader in the movement to revitalize critically endangered Indigenous languages. And most significantly, Wiley’s husband, son, daughter, their spouses, and her grandchildren are becoming fluent in n̓səl̓xčin̓ ― a comforting realization of her long-ago vision.

The 2023 Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellow is finally hopeful for the future of her Indigenous language. “We have successfully trained more than 20 new, adult advanced fluent speakers of n̓səl̓xčin̓, and we currently have 26 adults participating in our intensive Salish Language Educator Development program.” Those numbers are promising, considering that in the United States, according to Wiley, there are only three surviving fluent elder speakers of her language among the nearly 10,000 members of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

She says that learning n̓səl̓xčin̓ language has been a powerful healing tool for her people. “It really makes a difference in how you feel about yourself. When I first heard the language, I felt like my ancestors were talking to me. I felt a connection I have never felt before. And people within my community who I have taught say the same thing.”

Leaving a trail that will ‘become a highway’

Once Wiley had decided to learn her ancestral language, she went all in. She quit her high school teaching job and began studying n̓səl̓xčin̓ in earnest under an elder fluent in n̓poqínišcn̓ (Spokane Salish), a sister language. “I was so hungry to learn anything that I jumped at the opportunity to learn any Salish language.”

Wiley enjoys a moment with her mentor, Sʕamtíc̓aʔ (Sarah Peterson), who taught her how to speak n̓səl̓xčin̓ fluently.

Eventually, Wiley found her “dream teacher and mentor” within her own language and community among the Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT). Beginning in 2003, Wiley began an n̓səl̓xčin̓ apprenticeship with fluent elder Sʕamtíc̓aʔ (Sarah Peterson). When Sʕamtíc̓aʔ retired from the CCT Language Preservation Program and moved back home to British Columbia, she invited Wiley and her husband, Christopher Parkin, to come live with her for two years to immerse themselves in master-apprentice time. Wiley is certain that this living arrangement was the breakthrough she needed to become fluent in her language. “Sʕamtíc̓aʔ wanted to share and have the language live on so much that she was willing to take a chance on me and my husband and our crazy idea.”

That “crazy idea,” according to Wiley, was the creation of the Salish Fluency Transfer System and Curriculum. She and her husband, a high school Spanish language teacher, recorded Sʕamtíc̓aʔ speaking n̓səl̓xčin̓ and developed language workbooks from these recordings. They have used this system to train dozens of new fluent speakers of n̓səl̓xčin̓, and it has become the cornerstone of the successful programming at Salish School of Spokane.

Wiley and her husband, Christopher Parkin, created the Salish Fluency Transfer System and Curriculum, which has been used to train dozens of new fluent speakers of n̓səl̓xčin̓.

“Chris and I made this conscious decision to leave a trail behind us for other people to follow,” Wiley explains their collaborative approach to passing on the endangered Salish language. “We thought that if we created this trail, hopefully, it would become a highway someday after we were gone, and others would follow it and leave the language behind for their families and communities. Now Chris and I try to speak Salish all the time to our grandkids.”

The Luce fellow is gratified to know that there are other language warriors doing similar work to preserve the Salish language. “We have a partner in British Columbia who teaches our curriculum on Zoom. And on the Spokane reservation, a language house nonprofit is also using the Salish Fluency Transfer System and Curriculum.”

Everyone is working hard to accomplish their language goals, she says ― for good reason. “This is really the last push for us before the generation leaves us.”

How she will use her Luce Fellowship

Now it’s time for the next chapter. As a Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellow, Wiley wants to take a leave of absence from the language school to “live, play, pray, and laugh” in her Salish language and culture. “For 20 years, I have been an activist, student, apprentice, leader, grant writer, and manager fighting for the survival and renewal of my language.” Now she is ready to lead a revitalization effort toward cultural immersion. “I want to be more of a cultural mentor, a fluent song maker, a ceremonial leader, a caretaker of the land, and a healer for my family and community.”

In 2023, the Spokesman-Review honored Wiley as one of 14 women across Eastern Washington and North Idaho in its annual “Inland Northwest Women of the Year” issue.

A primary goal for the fellowship will be to work with fluent elders. She plans to engage in monthly, recorded immersion sessions with them to learn about and discuss cultural practices ― from pregnancy and birth, coming-of-age ceremonies, and healing practices, to traditional medicines and the harvest and preparation of traditional foods.

Thanks to the Luce fellowship, Wiley recently had the time and capacity to plan and host a traditional root feast. “It was the first year that our students have been able to gather all the traditional foods and share them with the community. We had this wonderful meal with salmon, camas, biscuitroot, bitterroot, onions, foamberries, saskatoon berries, and huckleberries. It was just beautiful!”

A working musician and songwriter, Wiley will also produce music in Salish to share with language learners during her fellowship period.

A former working musician and songwriter, Wiley will also tap into these talents during the fellowship period to compose and produce music in Salish to share with language learners. “I have already published a collection of hand-drum songs and Christmas music in my language. Now I would like to compose, record, and share another album of original songs,” she explains.

Through all her efforts, the Luce fellow remains laser-focused on language preservation. “Our goal is to have parents learn the language and raise their kids in it to create intergenerational pairs.” She has high hopes that she will live long enough to see someone raise a first-language speaker. “If I could make this go forward in a good way and help heal people from all the trauma around language, then I feel like I’ve done my part in my life.”

With a strong foothold in that foreseeable future, Wiley is quick to acknowledge her past. “I think about my ancestors and how much they suffered so that I could be here today. I feel like I am standing on the backs of giants.”

*SPECIAL NOTE: In 2023, Wiley was recognized by the Spokesman-Review for her work in preserving the Salish language. She was one of 14 women across Eastern Washington and North Idaho named “Inland Northwest Women of the Year” in its annual special edition.