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.

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After devoting his life to understanding the mechanics and music of languages, William Shipley speaks fewer than you might expect. The 82-year-old linguist studied Latin and Greek as a youth, learned Mandarin during World War II, and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. But the language Shipley is most proud of knowing, the one that has shaped his career and much of the course of his life, is understood by less than a dozen people on earth. It is Mountain Maidu, and it was once spoken by some two to three thousand California Indians who lived in the northern Sierra Nevada.

Shipley learned the language 50 years ago, from a half-Maidu, half-Dutch woman named Maym Benner Gallagher. As a 32-year-old graduate student in linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, Shipley had arrived at Gallagher’s door in Maidu country, roughly 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, one snowy December afternoon in 1953. Armed with a tape recorder the size of a footlocker, he explained that he was looking for someone to teach him Maidu. Gallagher’s husband, Lee, was concerned that Shipley had traveled a long way for nothing. “I’ve always heard it told,” he explained, “that white people couldn’t learn these languages.”

Maidu is certainly unlike anything most white people are likely to have encountered. It has eight cases and no prepositions and contains an arsenal of sounds not found in any European language — glottalized k’s and g’s, imploded b’s and d’s. Like many Indian languages, it is polysynthetic, meaning that what we would express in a sentence the Maidu express in a single word containing a long string of suffixes.

Yet Shipley thought he might be able to manage it. Languages came easily to him — as a child he used to invent his own, a pastime his father considered a sign of impending lunacy. After studying anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, he joined a kind of linguistic salvage operation funded by the California Legislature. Each summer five graduate students were provided with a car, a tape recorder, and enough money to hire a native teacher. The goal was to document California Indian languages before they disappeared.

Maym Gallagher was 64 when Shipley met her, although she looked and seemed much younger. She had wavy black hair, a talent for the violin, and a raunchy sense of humor quite unlike anything Shipley had ever encountered in a woman. She had grown up both bilingual and bicultural, speaking Maidu with her mother and English with her father, a Dutch settler who had come to the Mount Lassen foothills from Wisconsin by covered wagon as a child. Her formal education had ended after high school, but she was a natural scholar. Within a few weeks of working together, the two had dispensed with the traditional relationship between academic and informant and began collaborating as colleagues, thus commencing what Shipley describes as “one of the great friendships of my life.”

Over the course of the next two summers, the pair developed a routine. They worked on the language three or four afternoons a week, knocking off around five to drink beer and talk. Some days they’d go driving around Maidu country, looking for old-timers who could still speak the language and stopping off for a drink at a local tavern on the way home. Gallagher loved to sit there smiling pleasantly at the overweight white clientele and then lean over to ask Shipley in Maidu, “Did you ever see anything fatter and more disgusting?”

Shipley still has the pale turquoise eyes and easy grin he had as a young man, and it sometimes startles him to realize that those backcountry rambles are a half-century in the past. Throughout his career as a linguistics professor at the University of California, Maidu has been his enduring passion, and Gallagher — who died in 1978 — has been the blithe spirit inhabiting his work. He developed a system for writing the language and has published a grammar, a dictionary, and a lyrical translation of Maidu myths and stories. He is now one of the last living speakers of the language, and he sometimes worries that there is no one left among the tribe who can teach it with Gallagher’s level of particularity and care. “I have all this language in my head and I want to get it down,” he explained recently. “Because if I don’t do it, nobody else can.”

But lately, Shipley has been worrying less than he used to. Two years ago he acquired a roommate, a young Maidu of mixed blood with an uncanny ear for language, a sweet and openhearted view of the world, and a firm desire to return the Maidu language to his people. His name is Kenny Holbrook, and he is Maym Gallagher’s grandson.

The question of how many fluent Maidu speakers remain is a touchy one, not least because many Maidu resent the notion that a white ethnolinguist may be the keeper of the linguistic flame. A lot depends on how you define it — does someone speak Maidu if they know a lot of words or phrases? If they’re capable of putting together new sentences? If they can think in Maidu? A fluent speaker, according to Shipley, can speak unself-consciously. By that definition, only a handful of fluent speakers remains. But even if you count people whose grasp of the language is limited to words and phrases, there are no more than a dozen speakers left, most of whom are in their 80s.

The situation is not unusual. At the time of the Gold Rush, there were about a hundred different Indian languages spoken in California. Today, fewer than 50 survive. The majority have fewer than five fluent speakers remaining, most quite elderly.

Language preservation and revitalization is a topic of tremendous concern throughout Native America, with some larger tribes investing some of the wealth generated by tribal casinos in full-scale native language immersion programs. But this kind of approach is impractical in California, in part because no treaties were ever ratified for California Indians, leaving most tribes without the land base to maintain a community of native speakers.

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.

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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We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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