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How Archie Thompson Saved the Yurok Language

In March of this year, the Yurok Tribe lost Archie Thompson, a widower who raised eight children. Archie was the last living native speaker of the Yurok language, but, thankfully, the language didn’t die with him. Today Yurok is taught in public schools in the Klamath River region of Northern California.

For the Yurok, language is the foundation of what connects the soul of their culture to the environment in which they live. It is through their language that they are able to give thanks to the land which they consider sacred for all that it has offered them. Annelia Norris-Hillman, Yurok Tribe member and Yurok Language instructor at Weitchpec Elementary says, “We are created in this place for a reason. We are here to give thanks for and to take care of everything that surrounds us. Language is really the essence of our culture. Without it, we don’t really exist.”

Today, the Yurok tribe is the largest in California with nearly 5,000 active tribe members. They live in the Klamath River region of Northern California. Because of their close proximity to the river, they take pride in using natural river resources such as dentalium shells to decorate Tribal ceremonial clothing. The revered shells are also used as gifts of thanks for visitors and peace offerings. Where the Klamath meets the Pacific is a very sacred place for the Yurok for, as Norris-Hillman explains, “Our god came to us from across the water.” Given the deeply sacred aspect of the area and the importance of their connection of language, culture, and environment, the Yurok have resisted any action which may harm their environment and lead to further destruction of culture and loss of language.

Though the Yurok are known for their fishing and hunting, they take pride in their actions to overcome the long struggle of non-Indian trespassing and revitalizing the Yurok language. Unfortunately, a variety of elements brought with foreign settlement started to spread all over California like a disease. Disease from foreigners killed off more than three-fourths of the Yurok tribe. This epidemic of Yurok destruction continued when more settlers came to the land in pursuit of the California gold rush, which took place in the mid-18th century. The relationship between settlers and the Yurok started off friendly, with the Yurok providing transportation for the settlers’ goods. However, like many of the relationships between Native American and white settlers all over the United States, there was tension over who would control the land. Until this time the Yurok had no reason for fighting. “The land was bountiful,” says S. Craig Tucker Ph.D., Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. Tucker also states that “the Yurok, Karuk, and others lived off the land. They did not need to travel. They had permanent dwellings and a monetary system. The abundant supply of salmon, deer, and edible plants in the area allowed Klamath River tribes to have permanent villages and homes. Because of the abundance of resources, they really had nothing to fight about.”

But they were forced to fight for their land and their culture and their dignity, and when too much bloodshed came from this war over the land, the U.S. government stepped in and established reservations for the Yurok, which constricted them both physically and culturally. These reservations were significantly smaller than their ancestral lands. In addition to taking away land, the government also allowed non-native logging and cannery businesses along the Klamath River. Natural resources were decimated throughout the region, and this nearly killed Yurok culture.

Yurok children were forced to be educated by missionaries, who stripped the students of their cultural and religious backgrounds. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Yurok language was nearly dead. This made the Yurok feel like a lost people because without language, communication is impossible. This affected all aspects of life, especially traditions dear to the Yurok, such as song and dance, fishing, and more.

Archie Thompson was born on May 26, 1919, in Watek, a small village along the Klamath River. Today it is called Johnsons, and is a small cluster of homes about 18 miles from where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. Sent to a boarding school at age 5, Archie was discouraged from speaking native Yurok, but at 8 he was returned to his grandmother, who only spoke native Yurok. From her, Archie learned to speak fluent Yurok.

As a teenager, he lettered in four high school sports; football, baseball, track and basketball. Later in life, he raised eight children as a single father, and served in World War II. Upon his return to his home from that war, he suffered a terrible accident while working in the logging industry that left him unable to walk. But he perservered, and much later in life, with other native Yurok speakers, such as Aileen Figueroa, Ollie Foseide, Jimmie James, Glenn Moore Sr., Georgiana Trull, and Jessie Van Pelt, Archie helped pass on the knowledge of the language through the Yurok Language Project, which strives to revitalize the Yurok language through a variety of outreach and educational programs.

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There is a small group of organizations working to produce programs to promote the Yurok language. The Yurok Language Project worked closely with Archie Thompson and the other elders to document, archive, and revitalize the Yurok language. Their organization also helps publish dictionaries for use by educators. Established by Juliette Blevins from the City University of New York and Andrew Garrett from UC Berkeley; the Yurok Language Project was instrumental in engaging with elders to record and document the language and source funds from the National Science Foundation to do the critical work that supports a variety of educational outreach programs.

The Yurok Tribe Language Program, building on the work of the Yurok Language Project, conducted their first teacher training in July 2007. Annelia Norris-Hillman, who teaches at Weitchpec Elementary, explains her calling to help with the language program. She grew up off the reservation and experienced programs of forced assimilation. After moving back to the reservation she began to learn her native language from Archie and other elders.

In addition to community classes and adult outreach programs, the Yurok language is now taught in five high schools throughout Northern California with Eureka High School, which has over 2,000 students, being the latest to join the program in 2012. Norris-Hillman notes that when the children begin to learn the language, their parents start to take interest in the revival, almost “guilting” them into learning the Yurok language.

Recruiting instructors and mentors from within the Yurok culture, including tribal elders, is essential to the program’s success. Every successful language program for youth must provide and create a climate of responsibility to, and respect for, the culture. Positive peer influence is a major part of this. This transformation requires specially trained staff members to oversee the process and development of a restorative justice model that will meet the mandate on a culturally based system (James, Renville). When programs provide positive role models from within the tribe, who will aid students in believing they will get smart through hard work, the system has a greater chance of success. These core elements are mandated in federally funded Indian schools.

The need for community support and social services from within the Native community and from the non-Native peoples is imperative to the success of any language and educational program within the Yurok community. Tribal role models like Archie Thompson play vital roles in the fulfillment of preserving and revitalizing the language, culture, and pride of the Yurok people.

The traditional ecological knowledge of the Yurok tribe is captured and categorized in their language. The legacy of Archie Thompson and the other elders, researchers, and educators who worked to diligently to preserve the language is that potentially some of that ecological knowledge can be saved. Understanding why there are thirty distinct terms to describe salmon is at the heart of discovering just one aspect of the fathomless knowledge the Yurok possess about Northern California’s Klamath River region.

What is the value of developing a deeper understanding of the ecology of this region if the region itself is threatened, transformed, and distorted by economic development? By preserving and revitalizing the language, these programs serve to empower the Yurok tribe to protect Yurok native lands and culture. Through legal and civic actions, the Yurok tribe has resisted invasive development of their native territory. They have fought against government programs that threatened complete destruction of Yurok culture and continue to fight to hold onto the Yurok language. Archie Thompson and his fellow Yurok elders, both past and present, should be proud. Annelia Norris-Hillman’s personal calling to this effort is “My hope is to keep this language alive. I want my great-grandchildren to speak Yurok.”

This article was written by San Jose State University students Lisette Abad, Mika-Robyn Garcia, Jim Heintz, Jayson Sawyer and Tad Shelby.

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