1. This sign welcomes visitors to the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribal Cultural Center in Washington State.
2. Hazel Sampson, the last native speaker of Klallam, died at 103.
Tom Callis / Peninsula Daily
News / AP Images
FEBRUARY 19, 2014
The Death of a Language?
The last native speaker of an American Indian language has died
BY JENNIFER MARINO WALTERS
A Native American language is in danger of disappearing. The last known native speaker of Klallam was Hazel Sampson. A native speaker is someone who speaks a language from an early age. Sampson died on February 4 at age 103. She was the oldest member of the Klallam American Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
“We lost an elder who kept the culture and language of [our] people fresh in the younger generation,” Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, told reporters. “She was a strong spirit representing who we are as a people.”
NATIVE LANGUAGES LOST
When all native speakers of a language disappear, the descendants of those who spoke it lose a valuable part of their history and culture. Starting in the 1870s, the U.S. government tried to eliminate many Native American languages by forcing Native American children to attend schools that required them to speak and read only in English.
Government officials later realized the importance of preserving these rare languages. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA), which aimed to preserve Native American languages by allowing them to be spoken and taught in schools. An additional act in 2006 strengthened those efforts by providing federal grants for Native American language-immersion programs in schools.
But many of the languages have already been lost. Of the more than 300 Native American languages originally spoken, experts estimate that fewer than 200 remain. Some have only a handful of speakers. And 70 of those languages could go silent in the next five years.
Jamie Valadez, who teaches Klallam at Port Angeles High School in Washington State, says Sampson’s death is a huge blow to the Klallam language and culture.
“[Her death] changes . . . everything,” Valadez says. “[Tribal elders] carry so much knowledge of our culture and traditions. [When they die], it’s gone.” Few of the 3,000 remaining members of the Klallam tribes in western Washington State and British Columbia use the language. But the Klallam are one of many tribes working to keep their language alive.
Before she died, Sampson helped to create a Klallam dictionary. In 2012, it was distributed to tribal members, local libraries, and schools. Klallam is also currently being taught as a second language in three Washington State schools—an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. Only time will tell if the language can bounce back.