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Classes teach, preserve Maidu language

GRASS VALLEY, Calif – Ferrell Cunningham is one of the last remaining people in the world who speaks the Maidu language fluently and he is starting a movement to teach and preserve his tribe’s native tongue.

At an initial public meeting the resident of Indian Valley in Plumas County told a packed room, “We’re hoping people will learn and enjoy this language and use it.

“It was the national language here in the Maidu nation. We hope that through these classes people will learn and use this language every day, and we eventually will hear the language spoken throughout this land again. When you go to Safeway, you should be able to hear it. When you’re at the bank, you should be able to hear it.”

Before the Gold Rush, thousands of Maidu people lived in the Sierra Nevada mountain foothills.

“If we’re successful you’ll hear the Maidu language spoken in the community, as it has been for thousands of years,” Cunningham said. “This is the language of this land. It is my belief that the land still understands this language very well. It is ingrained. The animals, the trees, the plants, the wind, the spirits all understand it.” He wants learning Maidu to produce a deeper understanding and relationship with the land.

“I believe that the ecosystem and the social system are integrated with the language. As we begin to understand the language we begin to understand the world around us. I do believe that living in this land here and speaking Maidu will help people to achieve greater spiritual awareness.”

Cunningham said he believes teaching the language will be good for the language itself.

“The Maidu language stopped growing 40 or 50 years ago. We have no words for video camera,” he said, indicating one at the back of the room, “or for coffee pot, computer, television or electricity. Maybe in this class we can create those words.”

The classes will be held both inside and outside. “We will have classroom study,” he said, “but then we will also have days when we will go out and walk through the woods. We can walk through the woods and through town and learn practical speaking, just as I learned it as I was growing up.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest,” Don Ryberg, Tsi-Akim Maidu tribe chairman, said several days after the initial meeting. “Over 30 people have signed up.” The classes will be held at the studios of the local community television station in Grass Valley. More language classes could be offered in the future, Ryberg added.

“These classes mean everything to the tribe,” he said. “We have one member of the tribe who speaks the language. That’s Ferrell Cunningham. He’s 33 years old. The next youngest person who knows the language is 86. That’s a great gap and there is a great sense of urgency to preserve our native tongue. One of the things the language classes will do is close that gap so there are more younger people learning the language.”

“We’re not just holding the instruction to tribal members,” Ryberg added. “We’re opening it up to the public so they’ll have the opportunity to learn our language.”