Regaining Her Tribe's Language and Cultural Heritage

Alyssa JohnstonAlyssa Johnston

Alyssa Johnston, who grew up on the Quinault Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula, always expected that she’d earn her college degree. Many members of her family had attended the University of Washington, and when she graduated from high school in 2007 she followed suit and enrolled at the UW.

She suffered some academic setbacks, however, and a family elder got sick. She left Seattle and returned to the reservation.

“I just wasn’t focused,” Alyssa said. “Then I started working, and I had my son.”

Alyssa was able to earn an associate’s degree through a reservation program, but wasn’t sure how she’d be able to get her bachelor’s while working and taking care of her family. The UW seemed like a world away.

But technology has the power to shrink the world today. When Alyssa heard about the online Integrated Social Sciences degree program, she saw her educational possibilities open up. She enrolled in 2015 and graduated two years later.

“When ISS became available, I just knew I was going to do it,” she said. “It gave me all of the tools I needed.”

The program was also a great fit for one of Alyssa’s major goals — to study her tribe’s ancestral language in order to preserve it and pass it on to future generations. As part of her ISS studies, Alyssa was able to earn academic credit for achieving “intermediate low-level proficiency” in the Quinault language.

Today, she’s a certified teacher in the Language department of the Quinault Indian Nation. In this interview, Alyssa talks about her experience in the ISS program and how it has impacted both her life and the future of her tribe.


What appealed to you about the Integrated Social Sciences degree program?

I really was drawn to how the program was laid out — it was so flexible. I was like, how can I bend my degree around to focus on what my interests are? So I just started focusing on education. I always wanted to be the superintendent of our local school, because there's not a lot of kids from there who go to university after they graduate.

How did the online aspect make it possible for you to get your degree?

I have a seven year old and a two year old. My daughter was actually born December 30th and I started my winter quarter on January 4th, and I still did it. I had an infant and I was just able to stay home with her and do my work, so it was perfect. It was everything I needed.

What was the significance of your ISS portfolio project?

It was a great experience, and I actually won the award that quarter for best portfolio — something I’m really proud of. I am also interested in building on my portfolio, because I feel like it's a great avenue to share with people from my community. My whole thing is focusing on my people, and that was the focus for my social science degree.

Why is education important for you and your tribal community?

Where I live there’s such a big opportunity for Quinault people to get jobs in the tribal government, but they need to get their certifications and degrees. I see a future where the whole tribe is being run by its own people.

How did studying in the ISS program help lead you to your current role as a teacher?

The UW faculty and the classes embedded in the ISS program really helped me to shape, organize and figure out how I can implement what is important to me. Learning what social science stands for, I recognized that this was the perfect program to integrate what means most and what I'm confident that our people will benefit from, which is the importance of education.

My position as a language teacher at the Quinault language department really lays the perfect foundation to build relationships and express these meaningful conversations about education, language and culture. The support of the faculty and the tools I gained through the ISS program truly helped pave the way to make it all come together.

What does it mean for you to preserve the language and the culture of the Quinault people?

The most important reason to preserve my language is to take back who we are as people. For decades, living according to after-contact agreements among English society has changed our natural, cultural and traditional ways — so much so that our language has almost become foreign to most of us too.

I feel that there are many phases to what it means to keep our language alive. First, a lot of healing will take place. Almost losing our language represents a lot of pain and hurt, but regaining it connects us to a spiritual journey that I feel we have longed for for some time. Second, when we regain control over it, not only will there be more opportunities for how we run our schools and businesses, but our traditions will truly reign again. The last phase will consist of the first generation to become fluent again, who will then teach their children.

I can’t describe in words how fortunate we are having the capacity to regain our original spoken language. It is who we are — our language is our culture, and we would not be ourselves without it. It’s everything to me.