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Madras High School Teaches Native Languages


Sunnyside Road on the Warm Springs Reservation

Sunnyside Road on the Warm Springs Reservation

John Rosman/OPB

As of last week, school is out for summer at Madras High School. That means a few months away from math, history and English classes — and for some kids — Kiksht, Numu and Ichishkiin.

Those are three of the languages spoken by members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. For a few years now they’ve been offered as an elective at Madras High School.

Arleta Rhoan is the lead teacher for the class. She says she learned Ichishkiin in her mother’s womb.

“Back in the days … the language was spoken by everybody. There was no English … and so when I was conceived and in my mother’s womb, she did a lot of talking with others, and being by herself she sang a lot … so while I was kicking around in the womb and when I got my brains and all that we need to start absorbing things of this world, I started consuming the sounds and pronunciation and the songs.”

When Rhoan was 9 years old, she was sent to an English-only boarding school. At the time, she only spoke Ichishkiin.

“So I’d get scolded a lot for not speaking English,” Rhoan said. “So I made sure that I never got caught speaking my language — I did my very best speaking English.”

Rhoan said she and her fellow boarding school pupils kept their language alive by talking to each other in secret.

“I’d make sure I was in a hide-y place,” she said. “And somebody was always watching to make sure nobody was coming around to catch us talking together.”

As she got older, Rhoan’s language skills eventually became a boon to her.

“Every job that I had, I was hired because I had my language, and I knew the culture, and I knew the livelihood of our past people,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean teaching the language to high school students came naturally.

“I didn’t learn the language that way, and I didn’t have any idea how I was going to teach a classroom,” Rhoan said.

Now, Rhoan teaches students in all four years at Madras High School. She said at least her students will remember some basic words in Ichishkiin, and maybe a few of them will learn enough to talk to each other and keep the language going.

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