Thursday, March 15, 2012

Elwha dam removal and language revitalization

I am far from being an expert on the Elwha, so please expect that I'm getting some stuff wrong here, and be patient with me.

The largest community of Klallam people is the Lower Elwha Tribe, near Port Angeles, WA. Their language is critically endangered. There are 2 fluent elders, who were sent to white schools and punished when they spoke their language (a tragically familiar story).

The Elwha river was dammed 100 years ago to generate electricity. They have started dismantling the dams, the largest such project ever.

I would like to help with the Klallam language, but sometimes I wonder if there's hope. When I first started learning about endangered language revitalization, there were 4 elder speakers, but 2 have died since. Those speakers have lived in English most of their lives. They may be completely fluent but not ACTFL Superior. With a language in such a delicate state, is it even possible to bring it back?  I wonder if it's even worth trying, as I sink in to despair.

My wife pointed out a parallel with the dam removal project. Congress approved funding in 1992, but they are still 2 years away from fully removing the dams. Even after that, it will take a long time for salmon to repopulate the upper Elwha, and it seems impossible for fish to return to the populations of a century ago. And yet it is worth doing.

If it's worth restoring the Elwha, then it's worth restoring the Klallam language. It may never be what it was, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

I'm not giving up.

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