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Translating tradition: Salish language accents Arlee holiday concert

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ARLEE — Girls wearing festive holiday dresses made of red velvet or cream silk take their place on stage next to young boys in striped vests and slick hair. In small voices, smiling faces, and the occasional wave to a familiar face, they sing beloved Christmas songs to an audience of parents, friends and family.

Salish language teacher Mary Lucy Parker stands smiling next to music teacher Brandon Ensley, her hands keeping beat.

As “Jingle Bells” begins to play, the children sing the first verses, but soon the Salish language resonates from the familiar tune.

Parker said after a month or so of practice, the children have the songs memorized. She stands by in case they forget, but the first-graders glide through the song, easily switching from English to Salish.

“Most children do like to sing and it helps them remember (the words) quickly,” Parker said.

Also known as “Sweet Mary” in Salish, Parker has worked and taught the language in the Arlee School District for 20 years.

The language was first incorporated into the K-sixth grade holiday concert about eight years ago. During that time, Tom McKoy, who is now the fourth-grade teacher at Arlee, taught music. McKoy doesn’t recall who approached whom first, him or Parker, but remembers loving the idea of involving Salish translations.

“It just took off,” he said.

McKoy even recalls learning some of the Salish lyrics of “Silent Night” but admits it was harder to remember for him than his students.

For years prior to adding the language to the holiday program, Parker had been taking students to perform songs before television cameras of the Salish Kootenai College’s television station. That music performance was then broadcasted to the entire reservation. It has been a couple of years since Parker has had students perform at SKC. 

“When we started to do it, the kids really enjoyed it,” she recalled. 

Now Parker devotes that time getting children ready to sing at the Christmas show and at the Spring concert. 

“I am just in awe that Lucy gets them learning those songs,” said American Indian curriculum coordinator Willie Wright. “It’s a challenge but a wonderful challenge.”

But Parker said learning to sing the songs is sometimes easier than translating some of them.

“You have to think about it before you translate,” Parker shared. 

She has translated the songs “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” for the program. Parker said she also uses the translations of songs done by teachers before her and those in a Salish book of hymns that she estimates was first translated into the related Coeur d’Alene language.

“When I was a kid, I probably heard those songs,” she said.

Now those songs resonate throughout the old high school gymnasium filled with Arlee community members.  

As the next class, sporting shiny shoes and coiffed hair, takes center stage to voice “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Silent Night,” Parker is there again to guide the young generation of Salish speaker and singers.

“By the time (of the performance) they are all singing very well. I’m very proud of them,” Parker said.

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