Pages from the new Klallam language dictionary. [Click on photo to enlarge]

Pages from the new Klallam language dictionary. [Click on photo to enlarge]

First Klallam language dictionary revives ancient Native American tongue

PORT ANGELES — The next time someone tries to figure out the unfamiliar alphabet and language of a sign printed in Klallam, such as the arched entrance to the Peninsula College Longhouse in Port Angeles, they can look it up in a dictionary.

A 1,008-page bound dictionary has put the language of the original North Olympic Peninsula people into print.

Port Angeles High School Klallam language teacher Jamie Valadez was one of the first to receive a set of the dictionaries, each about 4 inches thick.

The delivery was fitting: Klallam is one of four languages offered to Port Angeles High School students to meet graduation and college entrance requirements.

“Just before Thanksgiving, we had it in our hands,” Valadez said, proudly displaying one of the library-quality volumes.

Most of the books reside in Valadez’s classrooms, though one is in the school library for general student use.

Valadez said she also expects to donate one to the Port Angeles Library, 2210 S. Peabody St., for public use.

The dictionary was compiled by linguist Timothy Montler and published by the University of Washington Press.

It was celebrated at a November gathering at the Port Gamble S’Klallam longhouse in Little Boston on the Kitsap Peninsula.

It brought together representatives from the Port Gamble, Jamestown and Lower Elwha bands of Klallam, the latter two based on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Every Port Gamble S’Klallam family and tribal government department now has a copy of the dictionary.

Montler will be in Port Angeles in January for a book-signing, though the date has not been scheduled yet.

The dictionaries are available for $85 each through the University of Washington Press at or at

The Klallam alphabet was developed by Montler, a University of North Texas linguist who has been involved in documenting the spoken Klallam language since 1978, first as a student of linguistics experts Terry and Larry Thompson, then in his own effort to document the language, starting in 1991.

“When he first came, there were around 100 [Lower Elwha] people who spoke Klallam as their first language,” Valadez said.

“Now there are two.”

The two are Bea Charles and Adeline Smith, she said.

Smith is the single largest contributor to the dictionary, with 12,000 individual words or sentences, according to the dictionary’s list of contributors.

Montler worked with elders from the Lower Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble Klallam and the Scia’new First Nation of Vancouver Island, creating an alphabet to include several sounds or sound combinations that don’t exist in the English language.

He recorded how each elder pronounced each word and how it is used grammatically.

Montler and Smith spent months transcribing recordings made in 1942 by linguist/ethnologist John Peabody Harrington, who died in 1961.

Among Harrington’s interviewees was Louise Butner, who was present at the signing of the Treaty of Point No Point in 1855.

The treaty essentially ceded tribal ownership of land to the Washington Territory in exchange for small reservation and hunting and fishing rights, according to

In 1999, Montler developed a series of booklet guides and lessons to help students learn the basics of the language through storytelling.

The lessons are used in Klallam preschool programs at Dry Creek Elementary as well as at Stevens Middle and Port Angeles High schools, Valadez said.

The research to create the dictionary was funded partially by a National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages Grant and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

During the process of creating the dictionary, Montler made a number of breakthroughs in understanding the structure of Klallam grammar and added more individual words to the vocabulary that were not available through earlier language programs, Valadez said.

Some of Valadez’s former students are now using Klallam to talk to their children in the cradle, creating a new generation of Klallam speakers, Valadez said.

The dictionary provides children with the experience of turning to the bookshelf to look up a word they don’t know, reinforcing parent-to-child language experiences.

“The tribe was very close to losing our language,” said Brenda Francis-Thomas, spokeswoman for the Lower Elwha Klallam.

“There was a time when we had no written language at all,” Francis-Thomas said.

She recalled that when the Klallam canoe took part in the first Canoe Journey in 1989, paddlers came ashore at Suquamish with little knowledge of their traditional tribal culture.

“All we had was our shawls,” she said.

Francis-Thomas said that, since then, the tribe has recaptured much of its heritage, including the language, songs and prayers — much of it through the work of Montler and the Klallam elders.

The tribe purchased 1,000 copies of the dictionary and distributed them to its members at a Christmas gathering Thursday, she said.

Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at [email protected]

Editor Richard Walker of the North Kitsap Herald contributed to this report.

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