- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) - The flashcards in front of the children and the letters of the alphabet hanging on the walls made the classroom look similar to nearly every other language class.

The creatures on the flashcards, however, were not dogs and tigers and elephants but mythic monsters and guardians. Intense-looking words with accents and apostrophes were splashed across the flashcards, and the letters on the walls were pronounced with unfamiliar sounds - “X,” for instance, sounded like a cat’s hiss.

The students in Tri City were learning Takelma, the official language of the Cow Creek Tribe, which recently learned that the language had been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. Takelma hadn’t been spoken fluently in more than 75 years, and yet today the children of the Cow Creek Tribe are waking this dormant language up.

In the latter half of the 19th century, when the Cow Creeks heard about the horrible conditions on the reservations, many of them decided not to go, so the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent exterminators to hunt them.

The Cow Creeks learned to blend in with the Western population, according to Michael Rondeau, CEO for the Cow Creeks. It wasn’t hard for many of them - especially those who had intermarried with local trappers, had last names like Rondeau, Dumont and Pariseau, and looked white - but it meant they couldn’t speak their native languages in public.

They spoke Takelma, the language of a tribe they had close ties to and intermarriages with. The last known speaker of Takelma, a woman named Frances Johnson, or Gwisgwashan in Takelma, died on the Siletz Reservation in 1934.

For the rest of the century, tribal elders believed Takelma was just another casualty of white expansion, Rondeau said. It wasn’t until four years ago they learned the truth.

In 2011, the tribe’s natural resources director, Amy Amoroso, stumbled across a mention of Takelma surviving online. What she found on Google was a revelation.

She relayed the discovery to the tribe’s elders. Elder Joyce Sertain remembers crying, then getting goose bumps as she heard the story of her prodigal language.

In 1906, Edward Sapir, a 22-year-old doctoral candidate from Columbia - who would later be considered one of the most important figures in modern linguistics - came through the Umpqua Valley and met Frances Johnson, one of “a handful” of Takelma speakers, he wrote.

The two spent a month and a half together at the Siletz Reservation where Johnson lived. The result was the basis of Sapir’s doctoral dissertation: 276 pages of stories, medicine formulas and vocabulary. It’s one of the few languages in the region to survive with so much content.

“Out of the hundreds of little tribes, he picked ours,” Rondeau said.

The Takelma learners, ranging from first to fifth grade, struggled to focus. They passed cookies back and forth, distracting each other.

This class takes place at the tribe’s Myrtle Creek education lab. The teacher is Rhonda Malone, who is Cultural Development and Language Coordinator for the tribe, and recently she was determined to ensure that each of the children would walk away with a word he or she could say and define.

To that end, she brought out candy.

“It’s amazing how well they knew these words when the Butterfingers came out,” Malone said. “If they only learn one word, I don’t care . not if that’s the word that hooks them.”

Malone works hard to make these classes fun. Each one has a theme, like “Cookies, Creatures and Clay.”

But Malone and the elders are trying to teach a language they’re still learning. Malone calls herself a Takelma 3-year-old. She knows vocabulary and strings sentences together, but doesn’t yet understand the grammar.

Malone also spends a lot of her time “harassing” the kids’ parents to bring them to the classes, which are voluntary and not part of any school district’s curriculum. Malone has to remind herself that the kids’ parents have lives and jobs.

“It’s my big emergency,” Malone said. “It’s not necessarily their emergency.”

The tribe is fighting against time, according to Dr. Ives Goddard, senior linguist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Goddard has worked with many tribes whose languages are in the process of dying as older generations do.

“When you have a smaller community,” Goddard said, “they don’t realize these people are the last store of knowledge until it’s too late.”

Malone and the elders find ways to insert Takelma into everyday Cow Creek life, whether it’s posting words on Facebook or just introducing themselves in their native tongue.

Malone’s vision is that one day she will be sitting with members of the tribe and a whole conversation take place without need for a single word of English. Her goal will be hard to attain.

Dr. David Lewis, an anthropologist and ethnographer, said that for a language to survive, it has to have a purpose. If people don’t need to speak it, they won’t.

Malone doesn’t believe she will ever see Takelma spoken as fluently as she wants it to be, since if that goal is reached, it will occur many generations in the future. But this fact doesn’t bother Malone. The privilege of learning right now is enough.

“When we speak our language,” Malone said, “we hear our ancestors’ voices.”


Information from: The News-Review, https://www.nrtoday.com

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