One Native American tribe is bucking worldwide trends and reviving its language.
CAROLE Lewis throws herself into her work as if something big is at stake.
“Pa’-ah,” she tells her Eureka High School class, gesturing at a bottle of water. She whips around and doodles a crooked little fish on the blackboard, hinting at the dip she’s prepared with “ney-puy” – salmon, key to the diet of California’s largest Native American tribe.
For thousands of years before Western settlers arrived, the Yurok thrived in dozens of villages along the Klamath River. By the 1990s, however, academics had predicted their language soon would be extinct. As elders passed away, the number of native speakers dropped to six.
But tribal leaders would not let the language die.
Last September, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language programme, marking the latest victory in a Native American language revitalisation programme widely lauded as the most successful in the state.
At last count, there were more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.
If all goes as planned, Lewis’ 20 students will move on to a second year of study, satisfying the world language requirement for admission to University of California and Cal State schools.
But the teacher and tribe have some longer-term goals: boosting Native American secondary school graduation rates and college admissions numbers; deepening the Yurok youths’ bonds to their culture; and ensuring that their language will regain prominence after half a century of virtual silence.
The decimation of the language dates to the first half of the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Native American youngsters across the country, Lewis’ mum among them, were sent to government-run boarding schools. The effort to assimilate the youth into Euro-American culture pressed them to abandon their own. Often they were beaten for speaking in their native tongues.
“The schools had a big negative impact on us. It’s how we lost our language,” says James Gensaw, 31, among the small staff of the tribal language programme led by Lewis, 62. “Now the schools are helping us to keep it alive.”
Decades of dissuasion had silenced the tribal elders. As a five-year-old, Archie Thompson attended boarding school in Hoopa Valley. “They didn’t want Indian language spoken,” recalls Thompson, now 93, with a rich head of grey hair and a luminous smile. “You couldn’t do your own culture.” (Two months after this interview was conducted, Thompson died of a stroke.)
Thompson made his way back to his grandmother’s ranch on the banks of the Klamath and was steeped in the language throughout his secondary school years. He hooked eels in the river and netted so many candlefish – kwo’ror’ – that the bottom of his boat turned white. He is among the few remaining original speakers. But he raised his own eight kids in English, the language of accomplishment.
It’s a familiar story.
Some revival efforts began in the 1970s, but they did not take off until after the nearly 6,000-member tribe received federal recognition and formed a government in 1992.
Soon Lewis was recruited, securing a grant from the federal Administration for Native Americans. She launched a master/apprentice programme to pair elders with new learners and hired Barbara McQuillen, now the language programme’s assistant coordinator.
Over the years, Lewis and McQuillen have worked with kids in primary school, secondary school, after-school programmes, preschoolers at the tribal-run Head Start programme and adults in community classes.
Both had learned Yurok from elders, who soaked it up as babies with no knowledge of the rules of grammar. “The elders would say things one way one time and another way another time,” McQuillen says. When asked why, they often could not answer.
Then in 2001, the University of California, Berkeley, linguists launched the Yurok Language Project.
Prof Andrew Garrett and a colleague reworked an early grammar guide and collaborated with elders on a dictionary. The online written and audio version of the dictionary has been hailed as a national model.
There are sounds not found in English – “hl”, for instance, made by putting the tongue against the back of the front teeth and blowing air out on both sides of the mouth, and “ew”, which Lewis jokes is used in English only by Elmer Fudd when he says “I will”.
The language also shines light on the Yurok worldview. The counting system depends on whether what’s counted is round or flat, human or animal. There are no general terms for squirrel, owl or hawk – only names for specific types.
And certain terms have no true English counterpart: Mue-neech, for example, translates as “a foolish action”, which misses the nuance. “When Coyote tries to do something to make himself look really good, and winds up looking really bad,” Lewis says, “that’s mue-neech.”
California is home to more than 80 Native American languages, making it the most diverse linguistic region in the Western hemisphere. And among revitalisation efforts, Prof Garrett says, the Yurok programme has been “astonishingly successful.”
Key to that was the push into the public schools. When McKinleyville High School relaunched its programme in 2005 after a long lull, there were four students. There are now 23, says instructor Kathleen Vigil, who co-taught with her mother until the elder woman died four years ago at 95.
By 2010, McQuillen was teaching Yurok at Crescent City’s Del Norte High School. Mike Carlson, 19, who graduated last year, is now an apprentice instructor.
On a recent day, he reviewed the words for birds with a squirming class of Klamath preschoolers.
“Terkerkue,” they squeal when shown an image of a quail.
The tribe has pushed for secondary school classes to be scheduled in the early morning – to get students there and keep them there.
It seems to be working.
Alex Gensaw lives next door to tribal elder Archie Thompson and craved a deeper connection to his culture. He came into McQuillen’s class three years ago knowing only 10 words of Yurok: it wasn’t spoken in his home. But the 16-year-old (a second cousin to Yurok teacher James Gensaw) is now teaching his mum. And his feelings about the school have shifted. “It’s like they care more,” he says.
Some non-native students have enrolled in Lewis’ Eureka High class, approved by the school board last summer as a pilot programme. Principal Rick Jordan says he hopes the programme will become permanent.
“Ideally we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Hey, we helped save a language,’” Jordan says. “How great is that?” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services