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Keepers of a Lost Language

An 82-year-old linguist and his young protégé are among the last speakers of a native California language -- and its final chance.

Given this situation, the work done by linguists like Shipley has turned out to be invaluable. The archives at U.C. Berkeley are filled with recordings and field notes documenting vanished and vanishing languages; as U.C. Berkeley linguist Leanne Hinton observes, "We have materials for languages that have no speakers left."

In 1997, Shipley was talking to Beverly Benner Ogle about his desire to find a young Maidu to whom he could pass on his knowledge. Ogle is Maym Gallagher's niece and adopted daughter, and has known Shipley since she was 13 years old and would sit quietly while her mother and grandmother schooled him in the precise locution of Maidu words. "He wanted this so bad," she recalls. "And out of the blue I said, 'My Kenny's awfully smart. You know, maybe I could send him down there. I think maybe he'd be the one.'"

At the time, Kenny Holbrook was 19 years old and working as a logger in the Sonoma redwoods. He'd had a brief and unsuccessful stint in community college and an equally brief stay in the U.S. Army, where he made it through basic training before realizing that "the military wasn't for me." When his mother suggested that he travel down to Santa Cruz to visit Shipley, a man he'd heard about his whole life but had never met, what he chiefly registered was the phrase "Santa Cruz." It was winter, there wasn't much work to be done in the woods, and a trip to the beach sounded appealing.

Within an hour of arriving at Shipley's house, Holbrook was sitting in front of Shipley's Maidu dictionary, repeating words in a language he had never before heard spoken. A handsome young man with chiseled features, a fringed goatee, and an affection for backward baseball caps, Holbrook had only recently begun considering the personal implications of his Native American heritage. He grew up near Maidu country in Red Bluff, a city of 13,000 people, and while Ogle had always made sure that her six children knew they were Maidu, he never thought of himself as being particularly different from the white kids he went to school with.

But when Shipley asked him to repeat a word in Maidu, Holbrook found that he could not only imitate the sounds; he could also remember the word. And paging through Shipley's Maidu dictionary, Holbrook saw that it was filled with pictures of his grandmother, who had died six months after he was born. One of the first Maidu texts the two went over together was Maym Gallagher's autobiography, which she had dictated into Shipley's tape recorder a half-century earlier.

"Bill bridges that life of my grandmother with mine and teaches me what she knew," Holbrook says, sitting on the sofa in Shipley's house. "Speaking the words she spoke makes me feel connected to her." After that initial meeting, there was no doubt in Shipley's mind that Holbrook was indeed the one. More impressive than Holbrook's ear for Maidu is that he has been able to learn the grammar of the language as a linguist would, using Shipley's doctoral dissertation as a textbook. "That particular gift for language that Maym had seems to have gone straight to Kenny," Shipley says.

At first glance, it seems a strange endeavor, to go about learning a language that no one speaks. Why bother learning to say, "Mínk'i k'ódojdi hesásak'ade?" -- "How are things in your land?" -- a traditional Maidu greeting, if there's no one left to tell you how, in fact, things are? Most linguists can offer plenty of reasons: Languages are beautiful in and of themselves, they argue, and diversity of language enriches the world and pollinates the intellectual commons. Language also contains clues to a people's history: Shipley, for instance, has compared Maidu to related languages to hypothesize about the tribe's probable migration from Nevada's Great Basin some thousand years ago.

But for native peoples, the arguments for language preservation are deeper and more personal. Language, more than any other single human creation, is the living artifact of a culture. Constructed over successive generations, it embodies the cumulative memory of a people's beliefs and knowledge, their stories, their names for things, the conventions that they use to tell each other about the world. A young Maidu named Farrell Cunningham, for instance, has used his knowledge of Maidu plant names to unlock the secrets of traditional ecology; the fact that the Maidu name for "pine tree" translates as "wind-lessening tree," he says, indicates that the pine was used to shelter oak trees, thus protecting the acorn harvest.

In Maidu tradition, language was one of the first gifts that Earthmaker gave to the beings he created. "I have put all of you in this world," he says in one of the tales translated by Shipley. "Henceforth, this world will belong to you. You will be creatures with names. All of you will have names, and the places where you live will also have names."

And so, for a Maidu, language is a link that reaches back to the creation of the world. To know the Maidu language is to be, irrefutably, Maidu. "I feel sort of alienated when I say, 'Well, I'm a quarter Maidu,'" Holbrook explains. "What does that mean? Speaking the language not only legitimizes for me who I am -- it also strengthens who I am, and it inspires me to be a Maidu who carries on what I have and gives it to my children."

The relationship between Holbrook and Shipley developed slowly, and in fits and starts, but it has solidified into something like family. Shipley persuaded Holbrook to try attending community college in Santa Cruz, and when money worries were threatening Holbrook's academic ambitions, invited him to move in. "He kind of helps me out, like a grandfather," Holbrook explains. Holbrook has a multitude of interests -- he wants to move on to the University of California and study both digital media and field linguistics -- and his work on the Maidu language often comes second to his other projects and responsibilities. But it's clear that Shipley sees him as his intellectual heir. Once, telling me about some Maidu research he'd completed but never published, he remarked, "I keep saying, 'Well, Kenny can publish that someday.'" Much of Shipley's work on the language has been rejected by the Maidu people as a white man's invention -- the writing system he developed, for instance, isn't used by a single Maidu besides Holbrook -- and he hopes that Holbrook will have better luck bringing his scholarship to the community than he has had.

Recently, Holbrook has been videotaping Shipley delivering a series of lessons in Maidu grammar, which he hopes to use to teach the language to Maidu teenagers. (The Shipley and Benner/Holbrook families have created a nonprofit with the aim of opening a Maidu cultural center, complete with language laboratory, in the valley that is their ancestral home.) But Holbrook, who knows the language as a scholar would know it -- he can read and write it, and he understands its mechanics -- feels that his work won't be complete until he can really speak it.

"To me, there's something special about the way that Maidu's spoken -- when it's spoken, it's a different experience," he says. "When I go up north, I try to speak it with people, but I have a different mental framework. I'm breaking down the little morphemes and trying to piece together the semantics of the sentence, whereas they're just saying phrases they've remembered."

Last November, Holbrook and I traveled up to Maidu country. Beverly Benner Ogle, Holbrook's mother, was eager to show me the site of the Indian Mission School in Greenville, which Maym Gallagher had attended. The school burned down years ago, but a few white clapboard outbuildings remain.

It was a quiet, grassy place, the ground littered with the yellow leaves of black oaks, and as I looked around, what I chiefly noticed was the beauty of the surrounding view: the woolly nap of the pine-clad mountains and the snow-heavy clouds resting on their peaks. But Indian boarding schools like this one weren't peaceful for the students who attended them. Children as young as four years old were taken from their families, sometimes by force, and if they were caught conversing in their native tongues, they were denied meals, saddled with extra chores, or beaten. Most learned to see their languages as a source of humiliation and pain, and refused to pass them on to their children.

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