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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.

Ogle, whose mother and grandmother refused to teach her Maidu on the grounds that she would never need it, says she'll always remember her grandmother's reaction when Shipley first arrived at the house in Paynes Creek and explained that he wanted to learn it. "Grandma just looked at Mom," Ogle recalls, "and said, 'They -- "meaning the white people" -- took our language away. What's he want with it now?'"

Across the road from the old Mission School was a small green house, the home of a Maidu elder named Letha Peck and her son Ennis, a well-known beadwork artist and basket maker. The Pecks seemed to know everyone in the Maidu community, and when we stopped in for a visit, they began discussing who still spoke the old language. Most of the names were familiar to Holbrook, but one was not -- a woman in her 70s whom Ennis described as a fluent speaker who still made the "old-time sounds," the glottalizations and imploded consonants that most contemporary Maidu speakers have lost. Holbrook nearly jumped out of his seat at the news that such a person existed.

"There's a bunch of words we'd like to ask how you say -- like we don't know how you say 'sage,'" he explained. "That's a real important word." The woman in question was out of town, but Ennis had another suggestion. "You should talk to Wilhelmina," he said. "She talks good Indian."

Wilhelmina Ives lived just up the road, and she was standing on her front stoop with her key in the lock when we pulled up. Ives is in her 80s and learned Maidu from her mother. Like many elders, she is private and reclusive. Holbrook got out of the car to explain why we had come, and through the windshield I could see her body stiffen, as if the conversation itself were an assault.

"If you're not busy right now," Holbrook was saying, "maybe we could come in...."

"Actually, I am," Ives said firmly. Then she stepped into her house and shut the door.

Many Native american elders seem actively opposed to the idea of resurrecting their tribal languages. Holbrook terms their hostility "the glare of the elders," and in a culture where elders are deeply respected, the glare can be a powerful deterrent.

"The younger generation figure they know it all, and they really don't know that much," an 83-year-old elder named Tommy Merino told me the next day, when I asked him about the language revitalization efforts of people like Holbrook. A small man with merry brown eyes, bristly black eyebrows, and a baseball cap emblazoned with a picture of a buffalo and the words "Native Veteran," Merino teaches the occasional Maidu language class, mainly focusing on individual words and phrases. He is an outspoken critic of what he calls "the linguistic method," arguing that Maidu should only be taught "the old way," by elder speakers.

"If you're an elder, you tell me how to say the words," he explained. "That's the old way. It's not what the white man's putting together, or anybody else. It's coming from real people."

Merino claims to have plenty of words to pass on, including 85 plant names, but he's decided to keep the knowledge to himself. "One day I'll forget it, I guess," he remarked. "But wouldn't that be sad?" I asked. "To lose all those beautiful words?" He shrugged. "Maybe it's meant that way, I don't know. A lot of my elders say, 'Tommy, you tell them everything and they'll write it up and get rich and you'll stay poor.'" I asked if he really thought there was money to be made from a language that's nearly extinct. "I imagine there could be," he said. "Shipley did."

I reflected on this as I drove back to my hotel, past Greenville High School, which advertised itself as the "Home of the Indians." I could picture the remaining speakers of Maidu spread out over the mountains like pieces of a puzzle, each hoarding his or her own segment of the language. The reasons for their reticence are various -- people are shy about their rusty skills, too isolated from other speakers, ashamed of a language that seems to have no relevance in a white-dominated world, determined to retain something that no white person can ever take away. Whatever the reason, the result is that the music of Maidu has been almost entirely silenced.

Into this silence comes the voice of young people determined to preserve the language. One of the few Maidu who can speak it conversationally is Farrell Cunningham, a young man not much older than Holbrook. He disagrees with Holbrook and Shipley over how to preserve the language, finding the scholarly approach, with its emphasis on pen and paper, grammar and syntax, antithetical to the living spirit of the language. It is an oral language, he argues, and it belongs on the tongue, not on the page. He wants to see Maidu used in daily life, even if it isn't the classic, museum-quality Maidu of years past.

"It's a place-based language," Cunningham explained to me. "It needs to be brought back to its community. These words, these songs, they don't just exist in space. They come from this place. All of the cultural associations, all of the generations, all the good and the bad are all put together in this language." Despite their disagreements, Holbrook and Cunningham know that they are the ones who must carry the Maidu language into the future. For the moment, they each have a piece of it -- Cunningham has the conversational facility, while Holbrook knows the grammar and pronunciation. Both appear to hope that they can overcome their differences and learn what the other knows. "The language that they learn is going to be the language of the future," observes Berkeley linguist Hinton. "It's not like learning French. You might have bad French, but French still exists. Here, there's not going to be any other source."

I once mentioned to Holbrook that it seemed like an awesome responsibility to me, being the heir to a nearly extinct language. He flinched as if I had said something hurtful, then paused. "I don't look at it as a responsibility -- I look at it as having something to share," he said. "If I have a talent to hear sounds that my grandparents were making, that Maidus now aren't making as well, then maybe that's work that I can do. I look at it as a chance."

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