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Sandra Warriors, who is learning the two endangered languages of her parents’ family line, nselxcin and nxa’amčin, said it’s both a grieving and empowering experience. (Submitted by Sandra Warriors) Sandra Warriors, 28, knows time is running out to finish learning the dialect of her father’s family line.

One of the last living fluent speakers of nxa’amčin (Moses-Columbia), Pauline Stensgar, is 91.

"It’s a very emotional experience," said Warriors.

"It’s kind of like a looming fear that’s overlooking me. [Pauline] provides a lot of insight that’s so valuable. She’s done a lot of work to preserve the language through recordings, teachings … She’s pretty tired now."

Nxa’amčin is a southern Interior Salish language that UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists as critically endangered. Warriors’ father attended boarding school in Washington state and was punished for speaking his Indigenous language, losing most of his ability to speak it as a child.

Warriors grew up on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation in northeastern Washington state. It’s comprised of 12 bands, including the Okanagan tribe her mother is from. The Okanagan tribes in British Columbia are related to the Colville Confederated Tribes; the communities were split apart when the U.S.-Canada boundary was drawn west of the Rockies in 1846. Emotional journey

Now Warriors is on a mission to learn the nxa’amčin language of her father and the nselxcin (Okanagan) — another Interior Salish language — of her mother’s family.

"I never imagined how much of an emotional process it is," she said.

"I have moments I feel overwhelmingly happy. Other times I break down crying, doubting myself, getting angry. It still is a struggle."

She first started learning her language after experiencing homelessness and leaving an abusive relationship. She then enrolled in classes being taught out of what she describes as a dilapidated building on her reservation. Despite the crumbling setting, she says it was a holistic learning environment and her teacher taught in a way that she could understand.

"I felt lost in the class, but then I learned about the meaning of my traditional name, ‘ tr’qmuł’ which means, ‘always winter dancing.’ It was really powerful," she said.

Four years into language learning, and not having any close family members who speak fluently, Warriors is grateful to learn from tribal language teachers and the last remaining elder speakers. But it scares her to know that Pauline is growing older and when she dies one day, she’ll take many of the stories, knowledge and cultural background of the nxa’amčin language with her. Pauline Stensgar, 91, one of the last living fluent speakers of the nxa’amčin language. (submitted by Sandra Warriors) "Each elder speaker has their own body of knowledge," she said.

"I learn about so much from them. More than just language: the plants, ecology, history, intimate family history that you can’t get inside a textbook."

Just last week an elder who Warriors was close with died. He was her main teacher of the Okanagan language. The loss is a grieving process that she’s struggling to work through.

"Language learning should be restorative and healing, but it’s always in the back of your mind…you’re trying to gain so much knowledge from this person before they pass. It’s really hard to learn when you’re feeling stressed out."

Nevertheless, she is determined to see things through and she’s hopeful that this generation will succeed in revitalizing lost languages. Reclaiming Ojibway Serena Graves, 24, grew up on the Red Lake Nation in northwestern Minnesota, about an hour south of the Canadian border.She had no exposure to her father’s southern dialect Ojibway language growing up because it was almost wiped out in their community. Graves’s father also […]

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