Lapwai, Idaho – Bessie Walker is one of a small group of younger Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) who has spent time with an elder who was fluent in Nimiipuu language.
Her grandpa spoke Nimiipuu language to her on a daily basis, but he has passed away and there are few life-long speakers left. As a result the Nimiipuu language is dying.
“Most of our elders have passed a place where they were fluent. I can’t think of a single person who learned Nez Perce language from birth who is still with us,” Walker said. “You can’t go anywhere to be immersed in our language and I am pretty sad about this.”
To help protect the last bits of Nimiipuu culture and language, the non-profit Hipeexnu kii’u nuun wisiix (Protecting the cultural ways) was formed in August of 2018.
Walker said that the Nez Perce Reservation has high rates of poverty and depression, and she is convinced one of the root causes is the cultural loss Nimiipuu have experienced.
“Everything is connected. Our language is just as important as English – there is a power for us in speaking our own language,” Walker said. “I feel different when I speak the language. It’s a bond between me and my family and the land.”
Protecting the Cultural Ways is a language learning program that specifically targets younger Nimiipuu. Walker has been teaching language for more than 10 years. She goes to school classes and kindergartens, but it’s been difficult.
“COVID made it really hard to hold classes,” Walker said. “We switched to online classes and we have a series of YouTube videos that make it a little easier online.”
Ultimately, Walker wants to build a school dedicated to preserving the Nimiipuu ways.
“We have lots of recordings of the Nimiipuu language,” Walker said. “We have to bring language to the youth first to keep it alive. That’s why we want to build a school.”
A grant from the Avista Foundation is going toward this project.
Preserving the Cultural ways also organizes camas root digging trips, though there are only 10 areas left where Walker said the bulbs can be dug.
“We used to have digs all over the place,” Walker said. “We have to try to protect what’s left.”
Guided by the memory and spirit of her grandpa, Walker is not about to give up.
She treasures the memory of her grandpa and the language he taught her.
“To me, he was the last fluent speaker,” Walker said. “There are just a handful of us left now, who have sat by a fluent elder.”
At Avista, we recognize our unique position gives us the chance to contribute in an impactful way and make a real difference in people's lives. Since its establishment in 2002, the Avista Foundation has made grants totaling over $12 million. The foundation focuses its giving in the areas of vulnerable and limited income populations, education, and economic and cultural vitality.
Grants are provided to non-profit organizations served by Avista Utilities in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, portions of southern Oregon, and Sanders County, Montana. The Avista Foundation also serves communities and citizens served by Alaska Electric Light and Power Co. in the City and Borough of Juneau.