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East Oregonian: Immersed In The Umatilla Language

Four hours every weekday morning, 10 toddlers at Tamalúut Immersion School dive into the Umatilla language.

Tamalúut means just that — to immerse in water. Some of the three- to five-year olds cling to the edge, talking back to the language teachers in English, while a few jump into Umatilla and chat away with peers.

For adults, the rules are made clear. A sign reads “NO ENGLISH” on the door of the school’s tiny room on the side of Nixya’awii Community School’s gymnasium. Parents get a quick glare when the language slips out.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation school is designed around accelerated language acquisition, said Tamalúut teacher Modesta Minthorn-Wolahts, who wrote the grant to begin the program last year. A similar program began in Hawaii, and was later adopted for Native American languages in Montana and Wyoming.

Minthorn-Wolahts describes the pilot program as an intuitive approach to learning a language. After all, babies say single words before they move to phrases, then sentences.

“The best way I can explain it is like scaffolding,” Minthorn-Wolahts said. “We use pictures to teach basic nouns. We build on that to develop ‘and’ statements, then add verbs, then descriptors.”

According to Thomas Morning Owl, a native Umatilla speaker and Tamalúut teacher, it’s easy to dunk a person into languages like Spanish or French because of the large number of speakers. Languages with few native speakers like Umatilla mean that learners are often relegated to memorization.

“That’s so hard to do,” Morning Owl said. “A language is much more intuitive than that.”

CTUIR language director Mildred Quaempts is herself a native Umatilla speaker. Quaempts remembers her own immersion experience in Pilot Rock Elementary School, where she was held back a grade because she didn’t understand English.

“I cried a lot,” she said. “I cried because I couldn’t talk to them when the children and teachers would talk to me. I would talk back in Umatilla.”

There are harsher stories of English immersion in the 19th and 20th centuries, where Native American students in government-run boarding schools would be punished for speaking their language.

“(The boarding schools) were incredibly effective at teaching English,” Morning Owl said. “In a way we want to take that model — without the abuse, of course — and run with it.”

The children are in their second week of immersion school after a summer off, and they are hyper. Assistant teacher Janice Hill giggles when she describes two boys wrangling around the floor as “little puppies.”

“We were so not prepared for their energy,” Minthorn-Wolahts said. “Our biggest challenge was their attention span.”

Yet the age also offers an optimal time for soaking up a language. Minthorn-Wolahts started learning Umatilla as an adult and has been studying it for 17 years. The linguist said she came into the school in the spring of last year, only to realize that the children were now teaching her the language.

Quaempts hopes the immersion program will expand to the Walla Walla and Nez Perce languages.

But, she said, the community must be willing to foster it.

“The community members can’t assume the children are going to learn on their own,” Quaempts said. “We want them to participate in what their children are learning. We want families to feel good about having the language in their home.”

Contact Natalie Wheeler at or 541-966-0836.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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