The Miller family helped revive interest in their native tongue
Editor’s note: For more than 13,000 years, Native Americans have lived along the waterways of the Pacific Northwest. Columbia River tribes share the names of waterways they call home: the Entiats, the Wenatchiis, the Chelans, the Lakes, the Okanagans and the Methows.
Members of the Miller family are the longest known continuous residents of the Methow Valley. Descended from indigenous Methows, their story is told through generations by the intricacies of their artwork, their native language, their connection to the land and their dedication to building strong communities.
They generously agreed to share their story with the Methow Valley News. In a five-part series, we will share the history of the Methows through the Millers. Following is the third installment.
By Joanna Bastian
Lower Methow Valley siblings Mark and Cyndy Miller, descendants of the indigenous Methow tribe, have a tradition of preserving. They work to preserve the land, their traditions and their families. Preservation of the Methow culture began with their grandparents, Jerome (Jerry) Miller and his wife, Agnes.
For Jerry Miller, the act — indeed, the very idea — of preserving their Native American language was in direct contrast to what he had experienced as a child.
In Jerry Miller’s time, Native American languages were — literally and figuratively — beaten out of children. When he was a child, the Catholic Church removed Jerry from his home and family in the Methow Valley. Like many Native American children across the United States at the time, Jerry was placed in a white foster home and sent to a Catholic school, the mission at Nespelem. Children were sometimes physically punished if they spoke Salish, their native tongue.
Jerry Miller wanted his children to be successful in life. It was his experience that speaking his native language brought punishment and discrimination. Not wanting his children to experience the same pain, Jerry stopped speaking in his native tongue.
“He did not allow his grandchildren to learn or speak it,” Mark and Cyndy Miller recalled. That was until linguistics professor M. Dale Kinkade from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, approached Jerry Miller about creating a phonetic alphabet.
Jerry Miller was one of the few surviving people in the Pacific Northwest who spoke the Salish dialect, also known as the Moses Columbia. “At first he [Jerry] refused,” Mark said, “but after thinking about it, he thought he might be the best person to help. He was one of the few who spoke and understood several different regional dialects from the coastal areas to the eastern Kootenai.”
Preserving the Salish language is a daunting task. Consisting of 23 languages, Salish is distinctive to the Pacific Northwest. Within the Colville-Okanogan region alone, nine different dialects have been identified. All Salish languages are extinct or endangered, with less than 1,000 fluent speakers.
Jerry and his daughter Mary Miller Marchand, Mark and Cyndy’s aunt, worked with Kinkade to transcribe the spoken language of Nxaʔamxčín using the International Phonetic Alphabet. After Jerry passed away, Mary Marchand continued to work on translating recordings of elders telling stories in their native tongue.
In an email from Henry Davis at the University of Victoria, Davis recalls a conversation about the project: “Dale [Kinkade] was my own mentor in Salish linguistics, and he told me about Jerome Miller. He found him working in his apple orchard. Jerry told Dale this shouldn’t take long, there are just a couple of hundred words. Dale worked with Jerome and Mary Marchand for years, and never completed his dictionary.”
Kinkade passed away in 2005. His protégé, Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Victoria, continued to work with Mary Marchand until Mary passed away in March 2013. Czaykowska-Higgins says of Marchand’s contributions, “Her passion for the language and her encouragement and her knowledge were crucially important for those of us at UVIC and at Colville Tribes that have been working to complete a dictionary of Nxaʔamxčín. It was a privilege and an honor to be guided by her knowledge and wisdom.” Czaykowska-Higgins continues to work on the dictionary with the help of Jerry’s great-granddaughter, and Mary’s niece, Crystal Miller.
An online version of the dictionary is projected to be released next year, with a print version soon to follow. When the dictionary is complete, there will be over 13,000 entries. It is based primarily on recordings that Kincade made with elders of the Colville Tribes during the 1960s and ’70s, which Kinkade and Jerry Miller recorded together, and which Mary Marchand translated.