ARLEE - Two decades ago, it appeared important Northwest Indigenous languages were disappearing, with fewer Native speakers.
But with the adoption of the International Phonetic alphabet, the dedication — and prayers of elders and youth — schools like Nk̓ʷusm in Arlee are guaranteeing a future for the Salish language.
Elder Stephen Small Salmon says he repeats a Salish prayer every day while driving to the school to teach, "I know that if I walk in there, I'll feel good here."
"I really feel like crying," pre-school teacher Nicole Perry admitted before introducing her students. "That's how I know that I'm gettin' old. But I'm really trying not to cry."
Perry, among the alumni who return to teach, wasn't the only one crying and smiling, as this year's classes of little ones and eighth-grade students graduated recently.
It was emotional for elders like Allen Pierre, whose father was key to the school's founding.
"When you have your culture, and your language, those two things go hand in hand. That's gonna help you navigate when you become an adult. It's going to help you navigate you way through life."
It's a journey that starts for graduates Leonides Stevens, and Maxe Bell, honored with gifts, and praise for their hard work, and influence on their families.
"That makes their family stronger," Pierre observed. "It makes them be able to understand who they are."
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Vice Chair Leonard Twoteeth agreed, saying the youth are the people that are "going to save their culture."
It was that mission started by four young people who approached the tribal council with a unique idea. Chaney Bell, who now serves on the Board of Directors reflected on what it was like to propose the concept.
"To think back at that support, from the elders and from the people. All the different people from that time. We were told there will be magic. And we kind of joked around about that a little bit. Because it was tough. But when we look back at it, from twenty years later, it really was a magic moment."
It's a moment now extending online, with a new app released this spring. Celebrated, with their own children, learning lessons of respect.
"Your language and culture isn't better than someone else's. But it's yours. It makes you who you are. And it adds to the beauty of the world," Bell told me after the ceremony. "But to see my old children, you know that's just an extra thing. An extra blessing to be able to have my own children be part of that. And to give them that gift as well. It's pretty awesome." - Chaney Bell