An Indigenous Language Is Stayin' Alive In A Karaoke Contest | KUOW News and Information

An Indigenous Language Is Stayin' Alive In A Karaoke Contest

Mar 10, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 1:32 pm

If you were a teenage girl in 1997 you'd probably recognize the song "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys. But if you heard it in the Salish language, would you still be able to sing along?

Keegan Heron can. He translated the song into Salish and performed it this week for the annual Salish Karaoke contest in Spokane, Wash. He's only been studying the indigenous language for about nine months.

"There's a lot of words that I didn't know two weeks ago," he says.

Heron teaches preschool on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

"I work with 4 and 5-year-olds," he says. "I'm trying to teach them Salish, and so I need to learn first before I can teach them."

By the end of his karaoke routine Heron was confidently dancing his way across the front of the stage, waving his arms and shouting, "everybody dance!" in Salish to an audience of at least 500 people. (He won second place.)

Salish is considered "critically endangered" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Two-hundred and fifty years ago, thousands of indigenous people spoke a dialect of Salish. Today, in the part of the Northwest from about Spokane to Missoula, around 300 to 400 people speak it fluently.

Natalia Garza wants to become one of them. She took third place for her Salish performance of "Dreams," by Fleetwood Mac. Garza moved to Washington state from Mexico and decided to learn Salish three years ago.

"It's not something that you learn in books," Garza says. "It does not stay in a classroom."

In the 1870s, Native American children were forced into boarding schools, where they could only speak English. Elders fluent in Salish passed away and there were fewer and fewer people speaking it.

To a newbie, Salish seems complicated. It has many new letters; one looks like an upside down "w," and there are lots of apostrophes. Speakers have to close parts of their throats and move their mouth and lips to make certain sounds. To win the karaoke contest — like the ensemble who performed "My Girl" — you have to show off those skills.

Grahm Wiley-Camacho has been speaking a dialect of Salish since childhood — he learned at home from his mother — and now he teaches Salish full time in Spokane. He's judged the karaoke contest in the past and says it has a specific scoring rubric.

"There's audience response and the showmanship piece of it, and then there's your singing ability," he says. "Then the fourth category is how much language did you use; how complex was your language?"

As a full-time teacher, Wiley-Camacho uses singing in his classroom to give students more confidence and a wider vocabulary. Eventually some of those students might find their way to the stage on karaoke night.

For almost a decade, contest organizer JR Bluff has been up there. This year he dressed as Elvis, and he swung his hips just like the music legend, to the sound of "Hound Dog."

Bluff is a member of the Kalispel tribe and runs its language program. For him, celebrating good times — and the Salish language — are at the heart of the karaoke contest.

"It's fun to be crazy, but to me it's celebrating," he smiled. "We're celebrating, we're speaking it. It's fun."

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A group of Native American tribes in the Northwest has come up with yet another way to keep their indigenous language alive. This week, they had their annual karaoke contest in Salish. From the Northwest News Network, Emily Schwing reports.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: If you were a teenage girl in 1997, you probably know this song.

(SOUNDBITE BACKSTREET BOYS' "EVERYBODY (BACKSTREET'S BACK)")

SCHWING: But do you know it in Salish?

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKSTREET BOYS' "EVERYBODY (BACKSTREET'S BACK)")

KEEGAN HERON: (Singing in Salish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in Salish).

MARTIN: Keegan Heron does. He translated "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys into Salish and performed this week for the Salish karaoke contest in Spokane, Wash. He's only been studying the indigenous language for about nine months.

HERON: There's a lot of words that I didn't know two weeks ago.

SCHWING: Like what?

HERON: Like (speaking Salish).

SCHWING: What does that mean?

HERON: That's like everybody move, everybody dance. (Speaking Salish) like I'm here. I'm here.

SCHWING: Heron teaches preschool on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

HERON: I work with 4 and 5-year-olds, and so I'm trying to teach them Salish. And so I need to learn first before I can teach them.

(Singing in Salish).

SCHWING: By the end of his routine, Heron is confidently dancing his way across the front of the stage, waving his arms, and shouting, everybody dance in Salish to an audience of at least 500 people. And he won second place. Salish is considered critically endangered by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations. Two-hundred-fifty years ago, thousands of indigenous peoples spoke a dialect of Salish. Today, in this part of the Northwest, from about Spokane to Missoula, around 300 to 400 people speak it fluently. Natalia Garza wants to become one of them.

NATALIA GARZA: (Singing in Salish).

SCHWING: She took third place for her Salish performance of "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac. Garza moved to Northeastern Washington from Mexico and decided to learn Salish three years ago.

GARZA: It's not something that you learn in the books. It does not stay in a classroom.

SCHWING: In the 1870s, Native American children were forced into boarding schools where they could only speak English. Elders, fluent in Salish, passed away, and there were fewer and fewer people speaking it. To a newbie, Salish seems complicated. There are many Xs, what look like miniaturised Ws and lots of apostrophes. You have to close parts of your throat and move your mouth and lips to make certain sounds. To win the karaoke contest, like the ensemble who performed "My Girl," you have to show off those skills.

GRAHM WILEY-CAMACHO: They actually have a scoring rubric that they use.

SCHWING: Grahm Wiley-Camacho has been speaking a dialect of Salish since childhood. He learned at home from his mother. Now, he teaches Salish full time in Spokane.

WILEY-CAMACHO: There's like audience response and there's like the showmanship piece of it. And then there's your singing ability and then the fourth category is how much language did you use. How complex was your language?

SCHWING: Wiley-Camacho uses singing in his classroom to give students more confidence and a wider vocabulary. And maybe they'll find their way to the stage on karaoke night.

JR BLUFF: (Singing in Salish).

SCHWING: Like this Elvis, who's actually contest organizer JR Bluff. He's a member of the Kalispel tribe and runs its language program.

BLUFF: (Singing in Salish).

The biggest trademark of karaoke, I mean, yeah, it's fun to be crazy. But to me, it's celebrating. We're celebrating. We're speaking it. It's fun.

SCHWING: For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Spokane.

BLUFF: (Singing in Salish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.