EUREKA, Calif. — 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 fall, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language program, marking the latest victory in a Native American language revitalization program 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 high 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’ mom 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," said James Gensaw, 31, among the small staff of the tribal language program led by Lewis, 62. “Now the schools are helping us to keep it alive."
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 program to pair elders with new learners and hired Barbara McQuillen, who had absorbed some Yuork from her fluent mother while growing up, to be the language program’s assistant coordinator.
Over the years, Lewis and McQuillen have worked with kids in elementary school, high school, after-school programs, preschoolers at the tribal-run Head Start program and adults in community classes.
Both had learned Yurok from their 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 said. When asked why, they often could not answer.
Then in 2001, the University of California, Berkeley, linguists launched the Yurok Language Project.
Professor 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.
California is home to more than 80 Native American languages, making it the most diverse linguistic region in the Western hemisphere. And among revitalization efforts, Garrett said, the Yurok program has been “astonishingly successful."