For thousands of years before Western settlers arrived, the Yurok thrived in dozens of villages along the Klamath River. By the 1990s, however, academics had predicted their language soon would be extinct. As elders passed away, the number of native speakers dropped to six.
But tribal leaders would not let the language die.
Last fall, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language program, marking the latest victory in a Native American language revitalization program widely lauded as the most successful in the state.
At last count, there were more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.
If all goes as planned, Lewis’ 20 students will move on to a second year of study, satisfying the world language requirement for admission to University of California and Cal State schools.
But the teacher and tribe have some longer-term goals: boosting Native American high school graduation rates and college admissions numbers; deepening the Yurok youths’ bonds to their culture; and ensuring that their language will regain prominence after half a century of virtual silence.
The decimation of the language dates to the first half of the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Native American youngsters across the country, Lewis’ mom among them, were sent to government-run boarding schools. The effort to assimilate the youth into Euro-American culture pressed them to abandon their own. Often they were beaten for speaking in their native tongues.
“The schools had a big negative impact on us. It’s how we lost our language,” said James Gensaw, 31, among the small staff of the tribal language program led by Lewis, 62. “Now the schools are helping us to keep it alive.”
California is home to more than 80 Native American languages, making it the most diverse linguistic region in the Western hemisphere. And among revitalization efforts, Garrett said, the Yurok program has been “astonishingly successful.”
Key to that was the push into the public schools. But making it happen wasn’t easy: Yurok-language instructors in most instances lacked California teaching credentials.
The elders who first offered high school instruction — one as far back as the 1970s — were granted eminence credentials, or special waivers.
When McKinleyville High School relaunched its program in 2005 after a long lull, there were four students. There are now 23, said instructor Kathleen Vigil, who co-taught with her mother until the elder woman died four years ago at 95. To accommodate Vigil, the school has assigned a credentialed teacher to sit in class with her.
But it became clear a few years ago that such arrangements would not fly in larger districts. Lewis and the director of Indian education at Hoopa Valley High raised the issue at a statewide conference — and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a tribe with gaming resources, stepped up to press for legislation.
The Assembly bill signed into law in late 2009 requires the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to issue an “American Indian languages credential” to teachers recommended by federally recognized tribes that are authorized to establish their own fluency tests.
By 2010, Barbara McQuillen was teaching Yurok at Crescent City’s Del Norte High School. Mike Carlson, 19, who graduated last year, is now an apprentice instructor.
On a recent day, he reviewed the words for birds with a squirming class of Klamath preschoolers.
“Terkerkue,” they squealed when shown an image of a quail.
The tribe has pushed for high school classes to be scheduled in the early morning — to get students there and keep them there. It seems to be working.
Alex Gensaw lives next door to tribal elder Archie Thompson and craved a deeper connection to his culture. He came into McQuillen’s class three years ago knowing only 10 words of Yurok: It wasn’t spoken in his home. But the 16-year-old (a second cousin to Yurok teacher James Gensaw) now is teaching his mom. And his feelings about the high school have shifted. “It’s like they care more,” he said.
A number of non-native students have enrolled in Lewis’ Eureka High class, approved by the school board last summer as a pilot program. Principal Rick Jordan said he hopes the program will become permanent.
“Ideally we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Hey, we helped save a language,’” Jordan said. “How great is that?”