Valerie Switzler grew up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation hearing family members speak Kiksht, the Wasco language. When her great-aunt, one of the last speakers of Kiksht, died in 2006, Switzler decided to go back to school and devote her professional life to preserving indigenous languages.
Switzler earned her master’s degree in global indigenous nation studies and now works as the culture and heritage manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Next week she will travel to Washington, D.C., to accept the Excellence in Community Linguistics Award from the Linguistic Society of America, where she will also meet indigenous language experts from around the world.
“In the language is the words of our sacred song. It holds the words for our medicine — not just for our bodies but for our minds. It’s the key to our sovereignty,” she said. “You can’t have the culture and the tradition without the language.”
Warm Springs is home to three languages. According to Switzler, there are about 50 speakers of the Warm Springs language Ichishkiin, also called Sahaptin, left on the reservation.
But there is just one remaining speaker of Northern Paiute language, and the last Kiksht speaker is now gone .
Switzler, 55, calls herself semi-fluent in Kiksht, enough so to teach it on the reservation and at Central Oregon Community College’s campus in Madras. She is one of a handful of teachers of these languages in the area and is working to recruit more to help keep the languages alive.
Switzler oversees Warm Springs’ language archive and classes in each language offered both to the community and students at Warm Springs K-8 Academy, a public school. She helped start an immersion preschool program that opened in 2011 and emphasizes involvement from parents and grandparents, extending lessons to the older generations.
“All around us, the world is English,” she said. “The community wants it (lessons), the kids want it, we just have to build the teacher base to do it.”
This is her second year teaching at COCC. Switzler said she uses classes as a way to recruit would-be Kiksht teachers. She has two so far.
— Reporter: 541-617-7837,