Salish School Builds Opportunities for Language Interaction & Transmission

K-2 Salish Immersion Lead Teacher Grahm Wiley-Camacho and his daughter X̌sčnitkʷ, who is also a first-grade student in his class.

K-2 Salish Immersion Lead Teacher Grahm Wiley-Camacho and his daughter X̌sčnitkʷ, who is also a first-grade student in his class.

According to linguists, languages not learned by children in the traditional way, passed on from one generation to the next, are doomed to extinction. Unless, of course, there are conscious and deliberate efforts taken by the community and their philanthropic partners to revitalize those languages.

Salish is one of many critically endangered Indigenous languages at risk of extinction. “For 90 years, our children have not been raised with the Salish language,” says Christopher Parkin, Principal of the Salish School of Spokane. “Interior Salish is only spoken by 24 surviving fluent elders, and most of them are in their 70s or 80s.”

In 2009, LaRae Wiley, who is a member of the Sinixt Arrow Lakes band, along with Parkin, her husband, and Colville tribal members Michelle Wiley-Bunting and Trina Ray, and tribal descendant Danica Parkin, worked with 14 surviving fluent elders to establish a language immersion school that would help revitalize the Salish language.

Salish logo copyThe Salish School of Spokane is a Native-led nonprofit organization that offers childcare and elementary school for families in the City of Spokane and surrounding areas. It is one of the few urban-based Indigenous language schools in the country.

New Fluent Speakers

The school officially opened its doors in September 2010 with six students and one full-time employee. Over the past nine years, the school has grown substantially to 58 students and 30 full- and part-time employees. The school has produced 17 new fluent Salish language speakers and has been well-received by the community.

“We’ve always had a wait-list for our school,” says Parkin. “However, we haven’t always had enough teachers and resources to meet the needs of those students.”

In 2018, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded the Salish School of Spokane $90,000 through the Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII) to build the capacity of Native-led organizations committed to preserving and perpetuating Indigenous languages. With the NLII grant, the Salish School of Spokane will expand its elementary school to a middle school by translating 7th and 8th grade math books into Salish, and training more language teachers.

Salish is the language of instruction for all subjects (math, science, literacy, art, music, etc.) taught at the Salish School of Spokane. According to Parkin, a typical day at the Salish School of Spokane begins with students greeting the day in their circles. Throughout the day, students also learn to drum and sing in Salish, and learn about traditional foods and medicines.

“We strive to give students a total connection to their true and full heritage, which has roots that go back 10,000 years on the Columbian Plateau,” says Parkin. “We teach our students to be very traditional, but they are also very modern so we try to merge traditional and Western education.”

Merging Traditional & Western Education

3-6_drumming 500pxIn addition to learning how to drum and sing in Salish, students also learn how to play the piano and sing contemporary songs in English. During the day, teachers read to students in Salish and English, but always expect their students to discuss and write their responses in Salish.

The students at the Salish School of Spokane have benefited tremendously from this bilingual education. Parkin notes that 100 percent of the 3rd through 7th grade students are reading English at or above grade level, with many of those students actually reading at two or three grade levels ahead.

With a 6:1 student-to-teacher ratio, students at the Salish School of Spokane are on par with students at private, upper-class schools. These accomplishments are even more impressive, Parkin notes, because 15 percent of the students at the Salish School of Spokane are or have been in the foster care system.

“Academically speaking, the statistics for kids in foster care are abysmal. They tend to do worse in school and have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse,” says Parkin. “Our students are succeeding because they are a part of a culture-language community that allows them to connect with their culture. Language revitalization brings healing to all kinds of areas.”

Inter-Generational Interaction & Transmission

First graders Mocpł (left) and W̓sšnaqs

First graders Mocpł (left) and W̓sšnaqs

The Salish School of Spokane offers free Salish language classes for parents and the community. In fact, parents with students at the Salish School of Spokane are required to complete at least 60 hours of Salish language classes per year in order for their children to attend the school. The goal is to encourage students to continue speaking the language once they leave the classroom when they are at home with their families.

“Children cannot learn the language in isolation,” says Parkin. “Our goal is to restart the inter-generational transmission of language – multiple generations speaking the language. We want to empower people to once again raise their children with the language.”

Parkin and the other founders of the Salish School of Spokane believe that inter-generational language interaction and transmission is the key to revitalizing the Salish language. With this goal in mind, they have expanded the free Salish language classes to a paid internship program that will teach parents to speak, read and write Salish.

With the NLII grant, the Salish School of Spokane will provide language training to four interns hired from among low-income parents of current students. Interns will complete 200 hours of Salish language training, 160 hours of classroom training, and 30 hours of early childhood education training (i.e., first aid, background checks, tuberculosis tests, etc.).

The internship program is intended to provide parents with a foundation course for a certificate in early childhood education. The hope is that these four parent interns will be able to use their newly acquired language skills to enhance their lives, both personally and professionally.

Speaking the Language at Home

As parents, they will learn to speak the language fluently so they can speak the language at home with their children. Professionally speaking, they will complete the internship program with the knowledge and skills needed to teach the language in a classroom setting. After completing the internship program, parent interns will be eligible to work at the Salish School of Spokane as early language instructors.

Salish immersion upper elementary class (grades 3-6) harvesting wapatos in Calispel Lake. Wapatos are an aquatic bulb and traditional food source.

Salish immersion upper elementary class (grades 3-6) harvesting wapatos in Calispell Lake. Wapatos are an aquatic bulb and traditional food source.

“Nearly 70 percent of our students are from low-income families,” says Parkin. “Many of the parents we work with are single parents who are unemployed, underemployed or working in low-income jobs. This internship program will allow them to work in the schools, and also enrich the lives of their children by connecting with them through language.”

The Salish School of Spokane is more than a school, says Parkin. “It is a language-culture community where we connect elders with youth, teachers with students, and parents with their children. It’s a shared community, and the foundation of that community is language. Language revitalization is cultural revitalization.”

To learn more about this innovative language-culture community, please visit the Salish School of Spokane’s website. The website also includes all of the school’s language curriculum, which tribal elders mandated must be shared with other Native communities interested in language revitalization.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer

Bishop Paiute Expands Nutrition Education

Amaranth seeds

Amaranth seeds

For a 2016-2017 project, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) selected 21 tribes and organizations across 12 states to receive grants to support nutrition education, especially among individuals who receive food under the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Among those selected, under generous funding from the Walmart Foundation, was the Bishop Paiute Tribe of Bishop, California.

Walmart Fndtn report D(This story was originally published in the recent “Outcomes Under the Nutrition Education for Native Communities Project” report that First Nations prepared for the Walmart Foundation. The full report is available for free on the First Nations Knowledge Center at

The Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program (FSP) has been working to expand its garden-based nutrition education projects to encourage healthy food and lifestyle choices by partnering with the Bishop Elementary School (BES), the Bishop Indian Head Start (BIHS), and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department and its food initiative programs.

With the funding provided by First Nations and the Walmart Foundation, the Food Sovereignty program, now in its third year, worked to expand the tribe’s work and community outreach.

Families Learn Together

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

“We focused on increasing garden-based and nutrition education offerings for the fifth-grade classes at BES, and offered similar food related activities to BIHS students,” said Jen Schlaich, Food Program Specialist for the Food Sovereignty Program. “Additionally, in collaboration with our FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega, FSP staff held an eight-week nutrition education class for Head Start families with hands-on cooking activities for both parents and children.”

Each week the class featured a new fruit or vegetable in recipes that the FSP cooked in advanced to share with participants as a taste-test. Parents then went through the preparation steps for the featured recipe.

“BIHS already had a nutrition curriculum. However, in the evening classes, which involved both parents and their children, we were able to integrate foods that students were learning about during the day into their home lives,” said Schlaich.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

While the parents were trying out the new recipes, the kids were engaged in simple cooking activities that incorporated the same fruit or vegetable that their parents were learning about. The class ended with a fun activity for the whole family such as painting clay pots and planting cooking herbs or designing a fruit basket to take home to an elder. Also, the parents who attended the class were able to take home the meal that had been prepared in class that day.

Plants Impact the Community

While the youngest students were cooking up fun at the Head Start kitchens, the middle school students were busy outside in the gardens tending their own growing plots, and learning about a plant not indigenous to their area. In the Fall of 2016, as part of a farmer-to-farmer cultural exchange supported by The Garden’s Edge, Quachuu Aloom, a Guatemalan Farmers’ Cooperative, visited the FSP gardens to teach community members about one of their important traditional foods – amaranth.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program's garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program’s garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Both the fifth-graders and the Head Start students visited the garden to learn about how to harvest and process amaranth, in addition to cooking with it and using it to make crafts. “We puffed the amaranth using a hot skillet and used it to make honey ‘granola’ bars that the students were able to taste. The seeds can be used in stews, ground into flour, or eaten like porridge. It is also a wonderful natural dye which the students were able to experiment with when making holiday gifts from plants to bring home to their families. The amaranth became so popular with the students that the small health food store in town ran out of amaranth. Community members requested seeds to plant along their fences as a usable barrier, and amaranth seed packets were distributed to those who were interested in it,” said Schlaich.



Other foods planted and harvested in the FSP’s family-demonstration garden included: Mohawk red corn courtesy of Rowen White from Akwesasne and founder of Sierra Seeds, tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, rainbow chard, leeks, radishes, acorn squash, herbs and flowers useful for medicinal purposes or for crafts, currants, gooseberries, beans, peas and bamboo.

Nutrition Education from the Ground Up

Shanae Vega, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, worked with FSP as the FoodCorps service member and served as the garden education mentor. Vega would provide support with the nutrition education lessons during the day with the Head Start students, and later in the evenings was involved in the eight-week cooking series for the Head Start families.

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Schlaich says Vega was excited to be involved and connecting with community members around garden-based and nutrition education, especially with the kids. At every cooking class Vega was surrounded by kids, who were wondering what she was going to help them cook or what they might get to taste-test next. Vega was also excited to work with all of the fifth-grade classes in Bishop that included students from the reservation and from the City of Bishop. She also worked with all children at BIHS and their families from the reservation.

All of the project’s efforts, including the partnership with FoodCorps, provided over 127 BES students with 10 hours of nutrition education, and nearly 85 BIHS students with six plus hours of garden-based education. Schlaich and Vega worked to get the information out to the community through a variety of ways, via the tribal newspaper, KBPT Bishop Paiute tribal radio station, and through their partnerships with BES, BIHS, and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department.

Schlaich says the partnerships, and the funding support from First Nations were key to their success. “We never would have had the resources for the eight-week nutrition education cooking classes without the support from First Nations. It was definitely a huge support that made the garden-based and nutrition education components of the Food Sovereignty Program much stronger. We’re excited and motivated to continue with cooking demonstrations during the third year of our community market.”

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer

Cocopah Tribe Engages & Empowers Boys & Young Men

Young Cocopah student during CPR training. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

For more than a decade, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has had a positive and lasting impact on Native youth. In 2002, First Nations launched the Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building.

Recently, First Nations unveiled a new grant initiative that reflects our growing commitment to Native youth and youth development: Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men (Positive Paths). Positive Paths, created in partnership with NEO Philanthropy and and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to reduce social and economic disparities for Native American males.

Studies suggest that Native American males are more likely to be absent from school, suspended, expelled or repeat a grade. However, a growing body of research indicates that suspensions and expulsions are not always the most effective means of reaching and disciplining these students.

Often, these punitive measures deprive students of the opportunity to develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed. Positive Paths supports innovative programs that emphasize alternative approaches to punitive measures that have a negative impact on academic achievement and graduation rates.

For years, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona relied upon the public school system for enforcing truancy laws for its students. This approach yielded little to no results, especially among male students. Educators decided to take a new approach that emphasized engaging and empowering Native American boys and men.

In 2014, First Nations awarded the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona $50,000 through the Positive Path grant initiative to restructure its truancy program. The tribe’s new program has reduced truancy rates among Native American males by nearly 75 percent. As a result, student grades and graduation rates have increased significantly, as much as 25 to 50 percent.

The Credit Recovery and Career Exploration (CRACE) program links at-risk male youth to the people and resources they need to recover academic credits, to pursue future career opportunities and develop leadership skills. Students enroll in online classes and work with tutors to successfully complete their courses and graduate.

Students participate in mock trial. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

Additionally, the program introduces student to careers that have the potential to strengthen and empower their tribal community. Since starting the CRACE program, participating Cocopah students have undergone CPR training, participated in mock trial exercises, and explored career opportunities in medicine and law enforcement.

Students participate in regular meetings with staff and instructors to provide feedback and discuss future plans. During the first meeting, education department staff members noted that many students seemed unsure about their future plans and goals. Over the past year, many students have narrowed down their focus, applying to college or preparing to enter the workforce.

Additionally, staff members have noted that this program helps instill students with a sense of pride in themselves and their community. One education department staff noted, “This program has helped make our students, their families and the community stronger. The program has already shown we can make a real positive difference in our students’ lives. This year we have had a dozen participating students make a 180-degree turnaround in regard to their grades, school attendance and personal attitudes.”

CRACE has received support from the tribe and the tribal community. According to the education department, tribal council members often act as mentors to at-risk youth. They also note that the tribe has recently passed a resolution that makes it mandatory for every tribal member to receive a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for benefits. This resolution sends a strong message to students: education is the key to strengthening and empowering their communities.

The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona’s CRACE program demonstrates the success of alternative techniques in inspiring students to achieve their education and take personal responsibility for their journey. CRACE brochures send the message loud and clear to students who utilize the service: “Your dreams are within reach. You just have to graduate high school to realize them.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

Protecting Native Money: How to Avoid Financial Fraud

Financial fraud is far too common in Native American communities, and is a growing problem with the recent increase in tribal lawsuit settlements with the federal government. First Nations Development Institute has partnered with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to produce a pamphlet that can help people protect themselves from common financial fraud techniques.

Over the past five years more than $1 billion in tribal trust settlements have been reached, including the Keepseagle and Cobell class-action legal settlements. Many of these settlements have resulted in payments to individual tribal members, which makes them targets for fraudsters who follow a simple strategy: They go where the money is. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation is collaborating with First Nations to help reach the recipients of these trust fund settlements, as well as other tribal members who may be targeted for their wealth.

The pamphlet, titled “Fighting Fraud 101: Smart Tips for Investors,” is designed to appeal to individuals, members of tribal investment committees, and retirees. It lists some common fraud tactics, such as the “Social Consensus” tactic that lead you to believe that your savvy friends and neighbors may have already invested in a product. With the “Source Credibility” tactic, a fraudster may falsely suggest they have worked with other tribal investment committees or helped people manage lump sum payouts from tribal lawsuits to try to gain trust. The pamphlet also teaches several techniques to avoid being taken advantage of and how to report suspicious behavior.

“We are honored to be able to collaborate with several national partners, including the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, to provide financial education for tribal members,” said First Nations President Michael Roberts.

First Nations representatives Sarah Dewees and Shawn Spruce spoke at an October 29, 2014, Federal Trade Commission event titled “Fraud Affects All Communities.” The purpose of this meeting was to highlight the range of consumer, financial and investor fraud techniques that affect diverse communities.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that financial fraud is a big problem on many Indian reservations,” said Sarah Dewees, senior director of research, policy and asset-building programs. “I am happy we have been able to continue our work with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee to help community members protect themselves against financial fraud.”

A copy of the pamphlet can be viewed in First Nations’ online Knowledge Center at  To order printed copies, you can email

By Sarah Dewees, First Nations Senior Director of Research, Policy and Asset-Building Programs

Collaboration & Partnerships Expand in Urban Indian Program

Jay Grimm, executive director of the Denver Indian Center, talks about the project

The Denver Indian Center, Inc. and the Denver Indian Family Resource Center are partners in the “Building Strong American Indian/Alaska Native Communities” effort, which is a three-year project that is funded by The Kresge Foundation.

As grant recipients in First Nations’ 2013-2014 Urban Indian Organization program, their project strategy is to improve and expand collaborative opportunities for the two organizations, as well as other partner organizations in metropolitan Denver.  They plan to increase participation in new and existing programs, build resources, explore new ways of working together, and enrich communication that creates the most impact.  Proposed activities involve resource development, case management, outreach, marketing, information exchange, database management, and developing best practices.

The National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) are also strategic partners in this project.  The main objective of their partnership is the amplification of services to the grantees to aid in sustainability and growth.  It is the right business match.  We are committed to the design and co-management of the program with open access to information, networks, resources and skills.  Our tasks are to deliver technical assistance and training along with assessments, site visits, media development, and information-sharing forums.

Partnerships and collaboration are motivating philosophies at First Nations.  Collaboration builds the Native American nonprofit sector.  It is a process that prompts individuals with diverse interests to share their knowledge and resources to improve outcomes, innovate and enhance decisions.  When we share our expertise we become deeply involved in the design and delivery of outreach, programs, and services.  As partners we solve problems, meet objectives, build support, and utilize our strengths more effectively for greater success.

Under the Kresge project, First Nations and NUIFC also selected two other organizations to receive grants. They are the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon, and the Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Each of the three projects is receiving a $40,000 grant.

First Nations’ and NUIFC’s overall effort aims to help organizations that work with some of the estimated 78 percent ofAmerican Indians and Alaska Natives who live off reservations or away from tribal villages, and who reflect some of the most disproportionately low social and economic standards in the urban areas in which they reside. Urban Indian organizations are an important support to Native families and individuals, providing cultural linkages as well as a hub for accessing essential services.

To learn more about these organizations and the project, please see the First Nations/NUIFC press release at this link:

By Montoya A. Whiteman, First Nations Senior Program Officer