Hipéexnu’, a non-profit organization aimed at developing Nez Percé language and culture among youth, has received several grants, including $150,000 from the NewSchools Racial Equity Venture Fund to help strengthen the group’s program.
NewSchools helps organizations or nonprofits that want to start a school that offers more diverse options for students and families. The grant will allow Hipéexnu’ to develop and research a curriculum, said Bessie Walker, founder of Hipéexnu’.
Ultimately, Walker said they hope to open an immersion school in two to three years. Walker founded Hipéexnu’ after the death of his grandfather, Nez Percé tribe elder Horace Axtell, in 2015, to continue his humanitarian work and devotion to family, people, culture and language. Walker also realized that students were going to need more time with the Nez Perce language than 15 minutes of lessons per day, or in some cases, two hours per year.
“It just didn’t sit well with me,” Walker said. “We can’t settle for two hours of Nez Percé language.”
Today, children at the Little Roots Learning Center receive close to 100 hours of instruction per year. Preschool started in 2019. Walker said toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 are the best at learning and absorbing the language. These skills can lay the foundation for children as they grow and become more fluent. Walker said their language proficiency is based on a 20-level system, from Beginner to Distinguished.
Last April, the kids at Little Roots dug in to find Indigenous roots, which are the kind of programs Walker wants to develop for the school. “Just spending more hours with them and being able to do more, like digging, doesn’t happen in school,” Walker said. “Getting them out onto the field where they should be…not always in a stuffy classroom behind a desk.”
However, Hipéexnu’ does not only take care of young people, but of all members of the community. Walker said Zoom courses offer Nez Perce language learning for adults in conjunction with Wenatchee Valley College.
When Walker taught Nez Percé in schools, she said about 15% of K-12 students wanted to learn the language. “That’s what the numbers have been throughout the community,” she said.
Currently, the association does not have funding for a building, but would like to have its school in Lapwai. Walker said it’s likely they’ll have to build the school themselves and hope a donor will fund it year after year, as most grants don’t cover maintenance.
“It’s the whole dream,” Walker said. “There is no place where people can go and be immersed (in the language)… The language is slowly disappearing; I hope it can be revived.
The non-profit organization was gaining momentum in 2019, but then came to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of their language teachers – some of whom were fluent in Nez Percé – have passed away, which has been difficult for the program and the community.
“It really pulls us back, but maybe it forces us to push harder,” she said.
Walker was first told about the grant opportunity by Ronnie Sachatello-Sawyer of Bozeman, Montana-based Hopa Mountain, which helps the Network of Native American Nonprofit Groups find financial support. Hipéexnu’ was among the 25 organizations selected for the NewSchools scholarship and was notified in November.
Hipéexnu’ also received a $15,000 grant from the Avista Foundation and Native Voices Rising, which aims to develop programs for young people that will begin in March with oral histories, visits to monuments and the development of a study programme. Hipéexnu’ also applied for a grant from the Christian Native American Ministry Foundation, also known as COOKNAM, based in Tempe, Arizona, but Walker does not yet know if they received the grant.
“It’s not just basketball players here,” Walker said of providing more opportunities for artists through the Native Voices Rising grant.