This story originally aired on March 30, 2019.
About a decade ago, Juliet Shen took on dream project. Shen, a typeface designer and artist, was commissioned by the Tulalip Tribes to create a new font specifically for Lushootseed, the now endangered language used by most of the coast Salish tribes. Shen isn’t Native American, but she often thought about the disconnect between Western typeface design and indigenous cultures.
“I felt the history of Native Americans was disconnected from the European history,” says Shen. “Which resulted in the way our typefaces looked today.”
The story of written Lushootseed starts in the 1960s, a short time ago compared to the long history of the language. University of Washington linguist Thomas Hess and native Lushootseed speaker Vi Hilbert worked to document the language. In this effort, they wrote down Lushootseed for the first time using the phonetic alphabet. However, they used a very Western font – Times Roman.
The original font reminded Shen of chemical formulas or complicated algebra, it looked daunting. It also preceded Unicode, the modern coding for fonts, and was difficult to use online or in e-mails. Shen’s job was to make a typeface that felt more in line with the culture of Lushootseed. To start, she looked at Salish art.
“I decided to look at their artwork and figure out what shapes reoccurred in their traditional artwork so that it belonged to them,” says Shen. “I used the artwork for, what I called, indigenous shapes that repeat themselves in indigenous art.”
The font needed to do more than look good, though. A language teacher also told Shen that the current font didn’t represent the sound of Lushootseed – which mimics the sounds of snapping trees, rain and the natural world of the Salish Sea.
“Lushootseed is the sounds that came from nature,” says Lois Landgrebe, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and language teacher. "Our ancestors developed the language according to how nature related to them.”
Her font was built with softer letters, as if they were handwritten or carved from wood. Shen hopes her finished typeface better reflects these sounds and the culture of Lushootseed speakers more generally. But she is also realistic about the work she did.
“It’s a very romantic notion to think that designing a typeface is going to help preserve a language,” says Shen, “because it’s really the teachers, the scholars, the linguists – all the people working on the front lines are going to preserve the language.”
Fonts can only do so much. The effort to teach Lushootseed remains central to language preservation efforts – a way for people to connect to their past and continue the story of their ancestors.
“I believe when I teach children and grownups and elders that, if you learn just a handful of words and are using them, you’re breathing life back into the words,” says language teacher Landgrebe, “you are a language warrior when you are using those words. If you know how to say good morning. Don’t say good morning in English, say it in Lushootseed. You own that then.”
Listen above to hear Juliet’s process in developing a font more in line with Lushootseed speakers and the importance of Lushootseed to the cultural identity of Coast Salish tribes.