NOT TRANSLATABLE: On the Flathead reservation, recording the Kootenai worldview in its own words

Story by Kevin Dupzyk
Pho­tos by Kate Siberell


IT’S A SPRING Mon­day in Elmo, and a small gath­er­ing of peo­ple are ready to hear Ade­line Math­ias tell a story.

Math­ias’ voice speaks, a slight sta­tic fuzz behind her Koote­nai words. Then lin­guist Dorothy Berney clicks pause with the com­puter mouse. Silence.

Cather­ine Andrew trans­lates the dig­i­tal record­ing of Math­ias’ voice: “It isn’t going to be a fairy tale; it’s going to be a true story.”

Berney types the trans­la­tion into her chunky black laptop.

Cather­ine and her sis­ter Louise Andrew help Berney tran­scribe Math­ias’ sto­ry­telling. It’s slow, painstak­ing work, but the elderly sis­ters enjoy it. No one speaks Koote­nai like Math­ias anymore.

Preserving Kootenai comes down to waveforms. Daniel Stiffarm works to make Kootenai recordings from the 1970s clean and clear. Then, native speakers and linguist Dorothy Berney can transcribe them.The meet­ing place is a small trailer between Elmo’s large green com­mu­nity hall and a retire­ment home. Inside is a mix of work­space and the com­forts of home: two offices, a con­fer­ence table, a white­board, a small kitchen, a couch and arm­chairs, a big-screen TV. Most every­one is set­tled into the couch and armchairs.

Math­ias’ great-grandson, Daniel Stif­farm, sits at a com­puter nearby, head­phones on, jagged lines of sound waves unfurl­ing across the mon­i­tor in front of him.

Another few words from Math­ias. Cather­ine and Louise talk; Berney types. The story is about a hunt­ing party. This goes on for four hours. By the end of the day’s ses­sion, a few min­utes of sto­ry­telling have been transcribed.

The Andrew sis­ters are two of the few remain­ing speak­ers for whom Koote­nai is their first lan­guage. Younger gen­er­a­tions only hear the lan­guage on occa­sion and speak with degraded pro­nun­ci­a­tion and lit­tle nuance. So the sis­ters and another woman, Alice Hewankorn, meet reg­u­larly with Berney to trans­late and tran­scribe old record­ings of peo­ple like Math­ias, who spoke Koote­nai as her pri­mary language.

Pre­serv­ing speak­ers means new learn­ers will be able to hear Koote­nai as it has always been spo­ken, even when the peo­ple who have always spo­ken it are gone. Oth­er­wise, Koote­nai may sur­vive — but it may not truly be Kootenai.

THIS PARTICULAR Mon­day is St. Patrick’s Day, and Cather­ine and Berney dis­cuss how to say “Ire­land” in Koote­nai. As an approx­i­ma­tion for “Emer­ald Isle,” they coin a Koote­nai word for “Green Island.” But the word for “some­thing that is green” can also mean “water­melon.” A direct trans­la­tion back to Eng­lish might lose some­thing, but in Koote­nai, it makes sense.

Cather­ine and Louise squab­ble over who is older, and by how much. Cather­ine is the younger of the two. She walks taller and has fewer lines on her face.

Many of the record­ings are of Louise and Catherine’s mother, Mary Andrew. As a lit­tle girl, Louise saw her tell her sto­ries. She would sit on the bed in her mother’s room, watch­ing her bead­ing and talk­ing into a recorder.

When I first heard her tape, it tore me up inside,” Cather­ine says. “Two, three times I heard her voice, and it’s just like she’s right here sit­ting with me.”

The sis­ters have an arrange­ment with Berney, who is not a tribal mem­ber but has been employed by the Koote­nai Cul­ture Com­mit­tee for nearly two decades. The lin­guist sits in one arm­chair, with her lap­top. Cather­ine sits in the other, Louise on the couch oppo­site, com­puter speak­ers in between.

When Berney plays a short clip of Koote­nai from her lap­top, the Andrew sis­ters repeat it back so she can tran­scribe it in Koote­nai. Then they deter­mine the best Eng­lish ren­der­ing. The goal is to pro­duce an accu­rate tran­scrip­tion in both languages.Alice Hewankorn pauses over a word during a transcription session. Kootenai doesn’t translate directly to English, so Hewankorn must be creative in trying to capture the essence of the language in English.

In the 1970s, the cul­ture com­mit­tee sim­ply tried to record the elders’ mem­o­ries. Now the record­ings are the best record of the lan­guage on the Flat­head Indian Reservation.

In Math­ias’ story, the hunt­ing party is just a few miles out­side Elmo, near Sul­li­van Hill, known in Koote­nai as “monster’s back­bone.” The mon­ster is dead; Louise says you used to be able to see its blood on the hillside.

You can’t see it any­more. It’s faded.”

Cather­ine explains that the mon­ster lived in Flat­head Lake, which used to be called Mon­ster Lake. She tries to remem­ber the exact details of its demise.

What was it, a bird?” she asks her sis­ter. “A bird or some­thing got jeal­ous. His wife would pick huck­le­ber­ries and come down here and feed that mon­ster. He caught on, so he went and he killed that mon­ster. I think it’s a whale, a great big thing.”

In the story, Cather­ine tells of how the mon­ster left the lake to die, and its car­cass is what is now called Sul­li­van Hill. “Suyapi, white peo­ple, call it ‘Sul­li­van,’” she said.

Night falls on the char­ac­ters in Math­ias’ story. A snow starts. After each short clip, the sis­ters talk Koote­nai back and forth, laugh­ing at the things Math­ias says.

Berney explains that Koote­nai words are often formed by com­bin­ing dis­tinct units, which can result in strange trans­la­tions. “The lit­eral pieces means, ‘That snow was ugly looking.’”

In other words, the snow­storm grew fierce.

The sis­ters tap their hands or feet while lis­ten­ing. Koote­nai is rhyth­mic, musi­cal even. The hard per­cus­sive sounds of con­so­nants com­bine with slurred l’s and lengthy vow­els to cre­ate polyrhythms that last for words, sen­tences, whole stories.

Louise Andrew, left, and Catherine Andrew, right, laugh while sharing a story about their youth. As children the sisters studied at the Ursuline Academy of St. Ignatius. They didn’t know very much English when they started. One day, Catherine’s teacher asked her to go check the time on the big clock in the hallway. Petrified, Catherine went to look. She came back and said the only number that she knew, “44.” As with any lan­guage, each speaker sounds unique, con­jur­ing dif­fer­ent moods with the stretch of their words and the sever­ity of their glot­tal stops. For 80-year-old ears that don’t hear the lan­guage as often as they’d like, it can be hard to under­stand. The Andrews some­times ask Berney to replay clips. Some­times they need her to help them recall the right words.

The irony that a non-tribal mem­ber plays such a cru­cial role in the lan­guage efforts is not lost on Catherine.

Took a white woman to straighten it out,” she said after a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult passage.

LANGUAGE LOSS is not unique to Koote­nai. The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau reported in 2011 that the 169 Native North Amer­i­can lan­guages it tracks have only about 375,000 total speak­ers; the 10 most promi­nent lan­guages account for about three-quarters of them. The Eth­no­logue, a lan­guage ref­er­ence affil­i­ated with the United Nations Edu­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Orga­ni­za­tion, clas­si­fies 140 lan­guages in the US as “dying.” Most of these belong to Native Amer­i­can tribes.

Ver­non Fin­ley, who occu­pies the office next to Berney, is work­ing on lan­guage efforts of a dif­fer­ent sort. In May 2013, a bill intro­duced by State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy passed, ini­ti­at­ing the Mon­tana Indian Lan­guage Preser­va­tion Pilot Pro­gram. Each tribal gov­ern­ment in the state was awarded money to take on lan­guage projects. Work­ing for the Koote­nai Cul­ture Com­mit­tee, Fin­ley wrote the Koote­nai pro­pos­als and now leads the work. He will pro­duce 45 beginning-level Koote­nai lessons and con­duct a flu­ency sur­vey to assess the state of the lan­guage on the reservation.

Unique to Elmo, the lan­guage lessons have an oppor­tu­nity to feed into the tran­scrip­tion work. Highly flu­ent speak­ers like the Andrew sis­ters can’t work with learn­ers who have no foun­da­tion, and with­out good lessons, the foun­da­tion is shoddy. The goal of Finley’s work is to accu­rately teach learn­ers enough of the lan­guage that they can con­tinue their learn­ing by speak­ing with highly flu­ent elders.

But what does the lan­guage look like in between “begin­ner” and “elder?”

PARKED ON the monster’s back­bone, Daniel Stif­farm can point out some of the oxi­dized, rust-red dirt that was its blood. The whole hill­side used to be red, but now it has faded, blown away, or grown over with scrub.

To most peo­ple, the Koote­nai lan­guage is not unlike the mon­ster. You can hear the lan­guage spo­ken — plant your feet firmly on its tan­gi­ble exis­tence — but the lifeblood is long gone.Daniel Stiffarm isn’t fluent in Kootenai, but he probably hears the most out of anyone on the Flathead Indian Reservation because his work entails digitizing old recordings of Kootenai speakers. As a hunter, he is personally connected to the language through traditional place names on the reservation.

For Stif­farm, the lan­guage ani­mates the hills, the rivers, the valleys.

His job is dig­i­tiz­ing and clean­ing up the audio record­ings. He also rep­re­sents per­haps the best-case sce­nario for speak­ers mov­ing for­ward. He reveres and stud­ies the lan­guage, and has ben­e­fit­ted from reg­u­larly hear­ing it as he goes through the recordings.

One of Stiffarm’s hob­bies is using the sto­ries to locate places with tra­di­tional Koote­nai names. On his maps, the names clus­ter around Elmo and the Big Draw, a moun­tain val­ley west of Elmo. Koote­nais’ his­tor­i­cal ter­ri­tory was mas­sive, but now there are just a few bands in British Colum­bia, one in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho and one on the Flat­head. Names move out­ward from Elmo in a gen­er­ally north­west­ern direc­tion but quickly become sparse, illus­trat­ing a major chal­lenge that the Koote­nais face: isolation.

The Flat­head reser­va­tion is home to almost 30,000 peo­ple, but only a few hun­dred are Koote­nai. Asked how many truly flu­ent speak­ers there are on the Flat­head, Fin­ley and the Andrews arrive at the same answer: “A handful.”

The lan­guage is what lin­guists call a “lan­guage iso­late”: It’s not known to be related to any other lan­guage. Addi­tion­ally, Koote­nai doesn’t bor­row many words. Speak­ers usu­ally coined their own terms for things. Thus the vocab­u­lary of the lan­guage shows when the lan­guage began to erode: There are tra­di­tional words for “train” and “auto­mo­bile,” but there is dis­agree­ment over “com­puter.” Words for “email” and “text mes­sag­ing” are notice­ably absent.

Fin­ley explained how tra­di­tional words reflect the Koote­nai world­view in a way that mod­ern, lit­eral trans­la­tions don’t. The mod­ern word used for cof­fee is “kapi,” a sim­ple pho­netic match to the Eng­lish word. It doesn’t mean anything.

Now, the orig­i­nal word for cof­fee,” Fin­ley said, “what my mom told me, was, ‘a bit­ter drink.’ And that would con­jure some­thing in the mind of a tra­di­tional Kootenai.”

Daniel Stiffarm consults a map atop Sullivan Hill. His map is covered with Kootenai place names scribbled next to their English counterparts. Sim­i­larly, Berney once saw some­one online ask how to say, “I’m proud to be Koote­nai.” She asked one of the flu­ent speak­ers for an answer. They told her a Koote­nai would just say, “I am Kootenai.”

It would never occur to some­one who is Koote­nai to brag about being Koote­nai,” Berney said. “The con­cept of being proud to be Koote­nai was sort of not translatable.”

Finley’s flu­ency sur­vey asks Koote­nais to self-assess their facil­ity with the lan­guage. He aims to pass out 200 sur­veys to cap­ture “those who iden­tify and want to par­tic­i­pate in Koote­nai culture.”

Some ques­tions on the sur­vey ask peo­ple to cat­e­go­rize their over­all level of flu­ency, while oth­ers ask about com­fort with words, phrases, and con­ver­sa­tion. Fin­ley antic­i­pates dif­fer­ences between the older and younger gen­er­a­tions. He sus­pects younger peo­ple will rate them­selves high in over­all flu­ency while reveal­ing defi­cien­cies in the other ques­tions: “It’s kind of shame­ful now, that some of the younger peo­ple think they know, when they know absolutely noth­ing, really. But that’s some­thing you’re taught in West­ern life. You’re sup­posed to brag.”

What is inter­est­ing about what Fin­ley says is its empha­sis. It’s not on the lan­guage dying, but shifting.

ALICE HEWANKORN works in the lan­guage trailer on Tues­days and Thursdays.

The one-room school­house she attended in the early 1930s is just across the high­way. The sid­ing is aged grey; the wooden door is peel­ing. But from the front steps, Hewankorn could see Mon­ster Lake, foothills, and the entrance to the Big Draw. The view is spec­tac­u­lar; the van­tage point, nearly lost to time.

Many Native Amer­i­cans of Hewankorn’s era say their school days ruined their lan­guage. She does not. She got to speak her lan­guage while still learn­ing Eng­lish, which might explain the remark­able ease with which she moves between the two. She pos­sesses a sin­gu­lar abil­ity to trans­late Koote­nai into Eng­lish that pre­serves the Koote­nai worldview.

She and Berney sta­tion them­selves at the con­fer­ence table in the back of the room. Hewankorn wears dark black glasses to pro­tect her eyes. On occa­sion, she removes them. A trans­for­ma­tion occurs. Because they are there to pro­tect her eyes, the glasses betray some amount of frailty. But her face with­out them is calm and atten­tive. This trade in frailty and wis­dom befits the fore­most speaker of an endan­gered language.Alice Hewankorn and linguist Dorothy Berney puzzle over Berney’s collected “language scraps,” the notes she makes whenever she hears a new Kootenai word or phrase. Berney speaks Kootenai and continues to learn the subtleties of the language through the transcription process.

Hewankorn talks in a way that is plain­spo­ken but play­ful. She demon­strates how to make one of Kootenai’s more dis­tinct sounds, a slurred L. The tip of the tongue is pressed to the roof of the mouth, directly behind the teeth, and air is forced around it. The lan­guage may be musi­cal, but she says: “You’ve got to learn to twist your tongue and gag and every­thing else.”

Hewankorn is work­ing on tran­scrib­ing Alec Lefthand’s story about unlikely lovers, Toad and Eagle.

She laughs through the tran­scrip­tion, she’s as much an audi­ence mem­ber as a trans­la­tor. “That’s a hell of a thing to say!” she exclaims when Toad is coun­seled to marry Eagle, a great hunter who never goes hungry.

Toad becomes infat­u­ated with him. In one scene, Eagle returns home to Toad after a hunt. “Oh yeah…” says Hewankorn, lis­ten­ing to the record­ing. She trans­lates: Toad sits down next to Eagle and puts her arm around him.

Lefthand’s voice speaks more Kootenai.

Oh. My. God.”

Toad has wrapped her arms around Eagle’s waist.

That’s one way of get­ting a guy, I guess.”

More Koote­nai.

Oh. My. God.”

That night, they lie down together and Toad never lets go.

When Hewankorn is lis­ten­ing, she rests her chin on her hand. She wears a gold ring, not bright gold, but not
tar­nished either. Her late hus­band, Char­lie Hewankorn, is spo­ken of often. To hear every­one tell it, Char­lie was the expert speaker they looked up to, much the way they look up to Alice now.

Alice Hewankorn stands outside her old schoolhouse in Elmo. Unlike the Catholic boarding schools, Hewankorn’s teachers encouraged her to speak Kootenai in addition to English.Fin­ley says in recent years it feels like almost every death in the com­mu­nity is a flu­ent speaker. There are the peo­ple on the tapes: Mary Andrew, Alec Left­hand, Ade­line Math­ias. There are the other peo­ple that have worked on the tran­scrip­tions in the past: Char­lie Hewankorn, Lucy Caye. Sarah Bufton is still alive, but had to give up the tran­scrip­tion work.

They’ve all left their mark on the lan­guage, but their era is com­ing to an end.

As Alice and Berney near the end of their work­day, Toad and Eagle’s story takes a turn. Toad won’t let go of Eagle, so Eagle can’t hunt. They run out of food. Eagle has to hunt, but Toad insists on hang­ing on his back. Eagle flies under a branch and knocks off Toad.

Broke up like glass,” Alice says.

But then Toad’s mother finds her bro­ken body, puts the bones back together, brings her back to life. When Alice and Berney stop for the day, the Toads are plot­ting revenge.

BERNEY ONCE asked Cather­ine her opin­ion of somebody’s Koote­nai ren­der­ing of, “The sun is up, the birds are singing.”

They aren’t all singing!” Cather­ine told her. “Maybe white man bird does, but Kootenai’s birds, they sound happy, they’re chirp­ing, they’re mak­ing all kinds of noise!”

Every sin­gle elder speaker I know, they just want their lan­guage to be rec­og­niz­able to them,” says Berney. “Some­times they’ll shake their head and say, ‘Well, that’s their lan­guage. I guess I’ll have a whole other language.’”

The great fear for those who work in the trailer is that with­out flu­ent speak­ers, Koote­nai will undergo a sea change, trans­form­ing from a native lan­guage that expresses native ideas to a native lan­guage that sees the world as the suyapi does. They all rec­og­nize high flu­ency is prob­a­bly unat­tain­able for future gen­er­a­tions, which only strength­ens their resolve to be pre­cise and accurate.

While some might argue that the pri­macy of the Koote­nai of elders past is an illu­sion, that lan­guages are bound to change. Berney doesn’t agree.

I know every­one says that lan­guages change and they adapt, but the kind of change we’re talk­ing about is not nat­ural lan­guage change,” she said. “That’s over the course of a lot of time by actual first lan­guage learn­ers, native speak­ers. Time and dis­tance, lan­guages even­tu­ally change. Amer­i­can Eng­lish is quite dif­fer­ent from British Eng­lish. But it wasn’t a bunch of peo­ple who don’t know the lan­guage mis­pro­nounc­ing English.”

“You’ll be some­body then, if you learn your language.”

Even so, lan­guage is tied to life expe­ri­ence. The record­ings are incred­i­bly use­ful but lim­ited in number.

Stif­farm jokes about many of the sto­ry­tellers on the record­ings being women. “I was telling Dorothy a cou­ple of weeks ago, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ll get flu­ent, or as flu­ent as I can off the record­ings and classes and what­not, but if you take me back 200 years, I’ll talk, and peo­ple would be look­ing at me, say­ing, Why are you talk­ing like a woman?’”

The lan­guage trailer is rarely with­out laugh­ter, but there is always an under­cur­rent of sad­ness. All the women men­tion get­ting lonely and call­ing Dorothy to talk Koote­nai. Even Stif­farm wears a kind of wist­ful­ness between his smiles.

It is hard not to hear every story as a metaphor for Koote­nai itself; hard not to see each name jot­ted on one of Stiffarm’s maps as a Shib­bo­leth of some mag­i­cal, once-proud peo­ple. Lan­guage is a tool humans use to cross the thresh­old between the world inside them­selves and the worlds beyond.

You’ll be some­body then, if you learn your lan­guage,” Cather­ine says to the younger generations.

If the goal were sim­ply to try and ensure con­tin­ued flu­ent use of Koote­nai, the work might only be sad and quixotic. But Catherine’s empha­sis is on “your,” not on “lan­guage.” The novel aspect of the work she, her sis­ter, Alice Hewankorn, Stif­farm, Fin­ley and Berney are doing is that they are resolved to set­tle for noth­ing less than the lan­guage as they know it should be — which makes the work noble.

They will see Toad recon­sti­tuted, not a monster’s car­cass with a suyapi name. Per­haps no one will ever again speak Koote­nai at the level of the tran­scribers, but the Koote­nai they do learn, to what­ever level they learn it, will be Koote­nai, real Koote­nai, the Koote­nai that ani­mates the rivers, the hills, the val­leys. A peo­ple.