19 Kindergarten through 3rd Grade Students are Learning Chinuk

January 23, 2018
A classroom of young students learning Chinuk in Grand Ronde

Realizing that the Chinuk language was being lost, Elders and first language speakers of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon worked to teach the language during the time of termination. After the tribe’s restoration, language use was still in decline. The tribe’s first ANA language grant created the immersion preschool and work has continued since then to expand use and create new speakers. They created their current Esther Martinez Immersion project to expand upon the existing half-day Chinuk Kindergarten-1st Grade (K-1) school immersion program.

The project expands from K-1 to K-3 and it complements the pre-school immersion program. The tribe has worked with the local public Willamina School District to have half day immersion education (all allocated subjects) in Chinuk on tribal lands in Grand Ronde and the rest of the day’s subjects in English at the school district in Willamina (8 miles east). The tribe has afterschool, spring break, and summer Chinuk language efforts as well.   

The objectives of the project are:

  • Provide education in various subjects in Chinuk
  • Create seven cultural and place-based curriculum units
  • Train two apprentices through immersion instruction with a master Chinuk speaker

There are seven project staff members who work with language masters and the local school district to carry out the project’s goals. The apprentices were full-time staff, and the rest of the project staff is part-time.

The K-3 immersion school has 19 students, just shy of the tribe’s goal of 25 students. The project’s students are predominantly from the communities of Grand Ronde and nearby Willamina. However, six students come from the surrounding Sheridan and Amity school districts. The dedication of parents to keeping students in the program despite the distance speaks to its success.

The project is doing more than simply educating youth in their most formative years. Project staff explained that the students are growing their personal identity and self-awareness through learning the language and culture. The parents of these young students are encouraged to learn and use the language with their kids and in their home. This K-3 immersion project, the pre-school immersion instruction, and the community’s plans for the future all work toward tying together family, community, and culture.

Staff hope to not only grow the number of students involved in the K-3 project but be able to expand off of this success and offer instruction in higher grade levels. The tribe would like to reach up to K-5 immersion and have 35-40 students, though they are aware that these goals will take years of hard work. They would also like to see Chinuk language instructors develop greater formal educator skills. Grand Ronde is fortunate to have a good working relationship with the local public school district willing to share each day of public education with the tribe’s nearby half-day immersion school program. The ultimate goal is still the creation of a standalone, full-day Chinuk immersion language school.

Those running the project advise other communities wishing to teach their children a Native language to start very young and, where possible, use full immersion. By working within their Native language, students and parents take on a sense of pride, understanding, and value for their language and culture.