By Jalea Walker
Aiy-yu-kwee Nee-kee-chue! Mey-wo-me-chok Howonquet, Yontocket, es-see Wilson Creek. Hoop-o ok. Ko-chee skey-wok-kee-ney hey-go-lek. Saa-a-goch nue-mee skue-yen ko-chue-mem. Nohl-hee-kon pue-lik-lo nee-kohl ho’ saa-a-goch-ehl.
(Hello Everyone! I’m from the villages of Howonquet, Yontocket, and Wilson Creek, and I also live in Hoopa, CA. First, I want to say the Yurok language is very good to know and is a way of the Yurok culture and lifestyle. Long ago the down river Indians always spoke Yurok.) Without the Yurok language our life, ceremonies, and culture would never be the same. Language is what keeps together every tribe. The realization of language preservation is thought of more today than it has been in the last thirty to forty years.
The Yurok tribe is located on the Klamath River in Northern California, about 40 miles south of the coastal Oregon border. The Yuroks have always been river people. They lived in redwood plank houses built along the river and traveled in redwood or cedar dugout canoes. Yuroks ate off the land: acorns, salmon, deer, elk, and various types of berries. The Yurok villages and ceremonial grounds were also built along the river. There are four main ceremonies that the Yuroks partake in each year: the Brush Dance (healing of a sick baby) White Deerskin Dance (world renewal) Flower Dance (young woman’s coming of age) and the Jump Dance (world renewal). It is believed that ever since the beginning of time the Yurok people have been located on the Klamath River. According to Chief Meninock of the Yakima tribe, “God created this Indian country and it was like he spread out a big blanket. He put Indians on it. They were created here in this country, truly and honestly, and that was the time this river started to run. Then God created fish in this river and put deer in these mountains” (Langer).
The Yurok language is spoken softly, yet it is still moving to the heart. It is so beautiful to the ears that it puts the mind at rest. According to the elders, ceremonies, and Yurok stories that are hundreds of years old, the Yurok language has been around since the beginning of time. The Yurok language is the key part of traditional Yurok life.
Various policies of the U.S. government have had a detrimental impact on the Yurok people, as well as the rest of the tribes in the nation. During the 19th and 20th centuries native children were sent to boarding schools. Entire tribes were removed and relocated under U.S. policy. At least one half of the Yurok tribe was decimated during the gold rush; for example, “During the 1870s and the last century every single aboriginal child would be removed from his or her home, family, community, and culture at the earliest possible age and was held for years in state-sponsored educational facilities (boarding schools) to be deculturated and indoctrinated [into white culture] and to see their own heritage [expunged]” (Churchill). Standing Elk of the Sioux tribe once said to a group of settlers, “Your words are like a man knocking me in the head with a stick. What you have spoken has put great fear upon us. Whatever we do, wherever we go, we are expected to say ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’ and when we don’t agree at once to what you ask of us in council you always say, ‘You won’t get anything to eat!’” (Langer). Just like Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee tribe once said, “Although it is so crucial for us to focus on the good things—our tenacity, our language and culture, the revitalization of tribal communities- it is also important that we never forget what happened to our people on the Trail of Tears. It was indeed our holocaust” (Langer).
The mission statement of state sponsored boarding schools was, “kill the Indian, save the man” (Churchill). My mother’s great grandmother spoke four languages. Her children and the next generations to come were sent to boarding schools, so the language was lost in our family. It hurts me to this day, because my family was deprived of learning the language and no one has spoken the language until I committed myself to the goal of language preservation. In 2008, there are less than 10 fluent speakers and they are all in their nineties. Fortunately, the Yurok people have been working hard in the last 10 years to make sure the youth understand the importance of relearning the language. Thankfully, the Yurok language is now being taught from pre-school through high school. In addition, our local high school petitioned the university regents to accept native languages as an equivalent for the “foreign language” requirement.
Over the last seven years I have been learning the Yurok language. I have learned from my grandmother and I go to Yurok language community classes, which are taught by fluent elders of the tribe. Furthermore, I have taken three years of high school Yurok language. I am becoming a good Yurok speaker and someday hope to become fluent. In order to live in the language one has to make the language be alive in one’s heart and soul.
Preservation of the Yurok language has become my goal. It is very important to me. The way I am going to help the language stay alive is to get a higher education. When I go to college I want to get my teaching credentials. Currently, there are 5,000 members of the Yurok tribe; however, only two are credentialed language teachers. After I become a teacher, I want to be a Yurok language teacher at the Hoopa Valley Elementary School. In the future when I have my own children, I will teach my children to be bilingual in both English and Yurok. Also, I will continue to speak with elders, youth, family and friends to try to teach them more Yurok words, so I can communicate with them in Yurok (not just in English). At ceremonies I will teach people the words in the songs and prayers, so they can know what is being said, and how important it is to know the language when one goes to the ceremonies. These are things I have already begun to accomplish.
Language is the most important thing any tribe can have. It helps the tribal people put on ceremonies, pray, and connects them to their ancestors. Many elders believe that our ancestors and spiritual guides can only understand us if we speak “the old language;” therefore, it adds even more significance to learning the language and knowing how to pray to keep the ceremonies traditional. Most importantly, language helps people live a traditional Yurok life. Without the language our culture would be lost forever. As long as I’m alive I will not let the language fade away. I will try my best to keep it alive in each and every aspect of my life.