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Salish Karaoke: A Stiffly Competitive Celebration Of Northwest Indigenous Language

Emily Schwing
Northwest News Network
Keegan Heron and friend Kayla Thomas performed 'Everybody' by the Backstreet Boys in front of nearly 500 people for the annual Salish Karaoke Contest, hosted by the Kalispell Indian tribe in Spokane Washington.

What’s the best way to learn a language? Salish teachers are using music and song to introduce their Native American language to new speakers. It’s a language spoken by many tribes across the Northwest.

Every year, a conference that celebrates Salish culminates in an annual karaoke contest in Spokane. Contestants have to translate a song and perform it in front of judges.

To a newbie, Salish seems complicated. There are many Xs, what look like miniaturized Ws and lots of apostrophes. You have to close parts of your throat and move your mouth and lips to make certain sounds. To win the karaoke contest—like the ensemble who performed “My Girl”—you have to show off those skills.

Salish is considered ‘critically endangered’ by UNESCO—the cultural arm of the United Nations.

Two-hundred-fifty years ago, thousands of indigenous people spoke a dialect of Salish. In the 1870s, Native American children were forced into boarding schools, where they could only speak English. Elders fluent in Salish passed away and there were fewer and fewer people speaking it. 

Today, in this part of the Northwest from about Spokane to Missoula, around 300 to 400 people speak it fluently.

Natalia Garza wants to become one of them. She took third place for her Salish performance of Dreams, by Fleetwood Mac.

Garza, moved to northeastern Washington from Mexico and decided to learn Salish three years ago.

“It’s not something that you learn in books,” she said. “It does not stay in a classroom.”

Keegan Heron won second place with his translation and performance of ‘Everybody,’ by the Backstreet Boys. Heron spent a few weeks translating the song and choreographing some dance steps to compete in this year’s contest. He’s only been studying the indigenous language for about nine months.

“There’s a lot of words that I didn’t know two weeks ago,” Heron said.

He teaches pre-school on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

“I work with four and five-year-olds and so I’m trying to teach them Salish,” Heron said. “And so, I need to learn first, before I can teach them.”

By the end of his routine, Heron was confidently dancing his way across the front of the stage, waving his arms and shouting “Everybody Dance!”—in Salish—to an audience of at least 500 people.

Grahm Wiley-Camacho has been speaking a dialect of Salish since childhood; he learned at home from his mother. Now he teaches Salish full-time in Spokane.

“They actually have a scoring rubric that they use,” he said. “There’s audience response, and the showmanship piece of it and then there’s your singing ability and then the fourth category is how much language did you use, how complex was your language?”

Wiley-Camacho uses singing in his classroom to give students more confidence and a wider vocabulary. And maybe they’ll find their way to the stage on karaoke night.

Salish Karaoke Contest organizer and Kalispel tribal member JR Bluff donned a wig and a white leisure suit and performed ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley. 

“The biggest trademark of karaoke—I mean yeah it’s fun to be crazy, but to me it’s celebrating,” Bluff said. “We’re celebrating, we’re speaking it. It’s fun.”

Credit Emily Schwing / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Salish Karaoke Contest organizer and Kalispel tribal member JR Bluff translated 'Hound Dog' by Elvis Presley into his native Salish language for the contest and tied for second place in the contest this year.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Keegan Heron's last name. We apologize for the error.