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SKC language room dedicated to devoted Salish teacher

PABLO — Her students said that such a fuss would have embarrassed the behind-the-scenes, modest Salish language instructor.

But last Wednesday afternoon, Salish Kootenai College staff and family, friends and students of Sophie Quequesah Mays gathered to honor the Salish teacher and dedicate a classroom to her.

The dedication, which followed her death by 77 days, took place in the Three Woodcocks Art building outside her old classroom and included heart warming speeches from friends and family members. 

Beams of light streamed in through the windows of the room as lines of the young and old stretched down the length of the hallway and into the corridor of the facility. Several attendees fought tears as they spoke of her service and devotion to the Salish language and her students. 

It was fitting to dedicate a classroom to a woman who dedicated 20 years of her life to the survival of a dying language — her mother tongue.

When Mays was just six years old, she entered school knowing just one word — yes. Over the next several years, the fluent Salish speaker would become a champion speller in English as well.

Later in her life she used her bilingual ability to teach her students at SKC and at the Nkwusm Salish Immersion School in Arlee. 

Her students that were present at the ceremony said that she was the quiet force behind the scenes and someone who they respected and admired not only as a fluent Salish speaker but as a hard worker, who was dedicated to the preservation of the Salish language. 

“She was in and out of the hospital and still came in to work,” student Linda Ferris said of Mays when she fell ill to cirrhosis of the liver. 

“It spoke volumes about her dedication, really,” Ferris added.

Staff and students alike commented on her commitment to teaching Salish and the positive relationship she built with her students.

“She really taught from her heart,” SKC Professor of Native American Studies Debby Courville said. “It was more than just a job.” 

Her students also spoke åabout her ability to successfully introduce new ideas into the classroom and her enthusiastic support of full immersion classes. 

Joe McDonald served as the master of ceremonies for the event that lasted a little under two hours and finished with a small lunch of cold-cut sandwiches, chips, vegetables and fruit. 

Sophie’s older brother, Alec Quequesah, was the last in a line of speakers. He gave a stirring speech in Salish about the life and dreams of his sister. He translated the speech in English, repeatedly referring to Sophie as “my little sister.”

The ceremony also involved the smudging of Sophie’s room in four directions. 

The dedication ended with two charged drum songs and friendly mingling of the friends, relatives, students and colleagues she left behind. 

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