How to save a dying language

By Norimitsu Onishii / New York Times News Service

EUREKA, Calif. — Sitting in a circle in a classroom at Eureka High School here, Tenayah Norris and a half-dozen other students were learning how to express direction in Yurok, a Native American language that nearly became extinct a few years ago. Growing up on the Yurok reservation in Northern California, she sometimes heard her grandfather speak it to his contemporaries, and she studied it, on and off, in the community.

“But it’s starting to click faster for me now,” said Tenayah, a 15-year-old with pink hair and a bright smile. “I’m glad it’s here — otherwise, I’d have to go somewhere else to take classes.”

Her goal is to go to college and eventually teach the language.

“We need more fluent speakers,” she said. “We’re getting more, which would be nice to speed up.”

Eureka began offering Yurok two years ago, bringing to four the number of public high schools in Northern California where the language is taught. Two public elementary schools also offer it, including one as part of a new immersion program.

The Yurok Tribe’s extensive campaign to revive the language serves as a model to the many other tribes, some rich with gambling revenues, that are undertaking similar efforts, experts say. No other Native American language is believed to be taught in as many public schools in California as Yurok, a fact that serves to widen the circle of speakers and perhaps to secure the next generation of teachers.

Redefining a living language

The experience of the Yuroks and other tribes is also redefining what it means to have a living language. A generation ago, linguists predicted that Yurok and many other Native American languages would become extinct around this time with the deaths of tribal members who grew up speaking the languages, the criterion used at the time. All of the current Yurok teachers came to the language as adults, by painstakingly acquiring it from the last living elders and sometimes comparing notes with outside linguists.

Eureka High School’s Yurok teacher, James Gensaw, 32, grew up hearing only the Yurok words for dogs, birds and other animals from his grandfather. As a young man, he became interested in the Yurok culture and one day asked an elder for help in composing a song in the language.

That experience placed him on a path of self-study: learning 10 new sentences a week from the elders; recording them on flashcards; and eventually working with Andrew Garrett, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Yurok Language Project, who assembled a grammar and dictionary that are now online.

“I learned the grammar from him and was also working with six fluent speakers,” Gensaw said. “At first, I didn’t know whether this linguist knew what he was talking about. He didn’t know how to speak the language, but he knew how to break it down. I didn’t want to trust what he was teaching us. So I would take what he said and ask the elders, ‘Is this how you say that?’ Or, ‘What am I saying here?’ Then they would say, ‘You’re saying this.’ And I would say, ‘Right on!’”

Linguists say that some 300 Native American languages were once spoken throughout North America, though most have disappeared or are at risk of becoming extinct. The languages experienced a natural decline amid the dominance of English. Also, under a federal government policy of assimilation, most Native American children through the 1940s were forcibly sent to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their native languages.

The situation began changing in the 1970s when many tribes tried to revive their cultural practices, eventually receiving federal grants to do so. For many tribes, efforts to resurrect their languages followed, though they accelerated a generation later with the growing casino revenues.

The Yurok, who are opening their first casino this year, focused on language early on. Susan Masten, the vice chairwoman of the Yurok Tribal Council, said she believed it was because the Yurok, isolated in this corner of Northern California, had been able to preserve their customs more than other tribes in more populated areas of the state.

“We weren’t hit like the southern tribes, with the missions, so we were able to keep some of our ceremonies intact, and we still practice them today,” she said.

Yurok revival

The Yurok Tribe, with 6,000 members, is the biggest in California, where dozens of small tribes used to speak different languages, many mutually incomprehensible despite geographic proximity. That has compounded the difficulties of finding fluent speakers who could teach. The word “Yurok” itself means “downriver people” in the language of the Karuk, a neighboring tribe.

“They don’t have the human resources to do what some of the larger groups in the United States are doing, like Hawaii with immersion schools,” said Leanne Hinton, an emerita professor of linguistics at Berkeley and a board member of Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. The organization has helped train teachers by pairing them with elderly speakers in the United States and Canada, as well as in aboriginal communities in Australia.

Among the Yurok, Carole Lewis, 63, has been a leader of the language revival campaign for more than two decades. Lewis, who teaches Yurok at a high school near the reservation in Weitchpec, about 70 miles northeast of here, was in the first generation of tribal members to study the language with the goals of reviving it and raising the next generation of teachers like Gensaw. But it was her elders who made the decision not only to revive their language, but also to spread it as widely as possible.

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth,” she said. “It was predicted that in the year 2010 our language would be extinct. There would be no speakers. No speakers.”

Now nine people are certified to teach the Yurok language in public schools. Thanks to lobbying by a casino-rich tribe in Southern California, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a law was passed in 2009 granting certification to teachers recommended by tribes themselves. The change made it easier for public schools to offer Yurok and other Native American languages.

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us,” said Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, where 10 percent of the 1,150 students are Native American.

Like all languages, Yurok is changing, though its turbulent history has made the pace of change fiercer. In Berkeley’s rich archives of the Yurok, recordings show how the language has evolved from the early 20th century, when many Yurok spoke only their own language, to the past decade, when the remaining fluent speakers, whose main language was English, died.

“The last speakers who passed away a few years ago were completely fluent,” said Garrett, the Berkeley linguist. “But the people who were recorded in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s still had access to phrasal and lexical complexity because they used the language all the time, and the last speakers didn’t.”

At Eureka High School, there was fresh evidence of change. In a first-year Yurok language class, most of the 21 students were neither Yurok nor otherwise Native American, but simply students who had chosen to study the language instead of the two others offered at the school, Spanish and German.

One of the most fluent students was Sophia Brady, a 17-year-old senior whose mother is from Haiti and whose father is of Irish-German background. She said she became interested in the Yurok language after she and her boyfriend, a Mexican-American who does not speak Spanish, began spending time along the Klamath River near the Yurok reservation.

“There are a lot of Yurok people and a lot of signs, and I thought it’d be cool whenever we go up there to just know what they’re saying,” she said. “I’m a senior, so it’s my last year, but I’m going to keep going and learn it wherever I can find it.”