Yurok people see victory in decades of efforts to revive the language | Indigenous peoples

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S.kip Lowry interacts with nature in a similar way to his Yurok ancestors – in the indigenous Yurok language. It gives the original name for a purple flower, low yurok houses, and sweet blueberries. “Our worldview is anchored in language,” said Lowry. He has worked to master the language for years and now works as an interpreter for California state parks and guides visitors through the indigenous history of a state park on the misty Northern California coast.

Yurok members have always referred to the state park where Lowry works – a rugged point north of Eureka – as Sue-meg, but for around 150 years the area was known as Patrick’s Point and the park, established in 1929, kept its name. Patrick is referring to Patrick Beegan, an Irish settler who built a hut on the peninsula in 1851 and who fled the area after being arrested for the murder of a Yurok boy. He later reappeared in the historical records for instigating an attempted massacre of indigenous peoples in the region.

View through the foliage and coastal pines in Sue-meg State Park. Photo: Randy Andy / Shutterstock

“It hurt me that I had to say Sue-meg village in Patrick’s Point State Park,” Lowry said, referring to a collection of replica Yurok structures in the park. “It’s painful for someone who knows how much more this place is than just an old homestead.”

Since last week, Lowry hasn’t had to. A California State Park commission unanimously voted for a name change that marks one of the most significant indigenous name restorations in the American West and brings in comparisons with the 2015 restoration of Denali Mountain in Alaska – the highest peak in North America. Not only is the name recovery the first in a nationwide attempt to address discriminatory names, it is the product of decades of hard work by members of the Yurok tribe in regaining and rejuvenating their language – a tongue that has been marginalized by genocide and coercion Destruction was brought to boarding schools.

Skip Lowry.
Skip Lowry. Photo: Courtesy Skip Lowry

Inside the Sue-meg name is a story about how to breathe new life into an indigenous language and the sometimes controversial process of relying on Western phonetics to capture the nuances and worldviews of the Yurok people.

“It’s bittersweet that we’re using the Western European alphabet to save our language,” said Lowry, who is part of the grassroots True North Organizing Network that pushed for the name change. “It doesn’t always taste good.”

Sue-meg – posted on California’s Highway 101 and viewed by hundreds of thousands of park visitors each year – is often pronounced as it would appear to a non-local person, but its traditional pronunciation is closer to “Sue-mae”. The word embodies one of the most difficult sounds to master for Yurok learners, said Andrew Garrett, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. There is no hard G in the Yurok language, and the consonant indicates an intermediate sound between a Y and a G. “It doesn’t correspond to anything that happens to be in English.”

According to Lowry, these subtle variations have a deep meaning in expressing the Yurok worldview through language. “The last EG means ‘habitual,'” Lowry said. “The elders knew that Sue-meg village was a habitually used fishing camp. It wasn’t always a really big village, but the two largest villages all showed up at the right time of year to harvest, collect and trade in this village. “

Yurok members have always referred to the rugged point north of Eureka as Sue-meg, but for around 150 years the region was known as Patrick's Point.
Yurok members have always referred to the rugged point north of Eureka as Sue-meg, but for around 150 years the region was known as Patrick’s Point. Photo: Melissa Kopka / Alamy

History of violence

Patrick Beegan came to what is now Humboldt County when the California gold rush spread to the sequoia trees in the vast expanses of Northern California. According to Humboldt University historian Jerry Rohde, it came just a year after white settlers first encountered indigenous peoples who have lived in the area for millennia, including the Yurok, Karuk, Wiyot and Hoopa. “The whites arrived here in April 1850. In May the whites had started killing the native Indians and that was the start of our local genocide, ”Rhodes said.

Large-scale attacks on tribes by the U.S. military and vigilante groups continued for 15 years before the remaining First Nation people were forced onto reservations. Systematic attempts to eradicate indigenous culture in the region and across the country continued as forced boarding schools attempted to deprive Yurok children of their culture and language. In the early 1900s, the Yurok language hung by a thread.

“[I] met boarding school elders who were beaten for speaking their language, ”said Rosie Clayburn, Yurok Tribal Conservation Officer, during a California Park Commission meeting. “These people, if they would speak Yurok again, it would be difficult for them. You would collapse and cry.

“Although this is a small world, it is Sue-meg, it carries so much to us, it carries so much more meaning to us,” she added.

Starting in the 1970s, the Yurok tribe began the process of reviving their language through systematization, an attempt that gained momentum in the 1990s. Garrett, the professor at UC Berkeley, has been using the strain to develop a Yurok language dictionary since 2001. But behind his relationship with tribal language experts was a story of linguists who belittled the indigenous knowledge that they were trying to document. “Traditional, you know, 30 or 50 years” [ago] The linguistic mindset was, “I’m the professional expert on the language and because I’m the expert, I can write down how the word is spelled and what it means,” Garrett said.

Yurok Tribal Headquarters in Klamath, California.
Yurok Tribal Headquarters in Klamath, California. Photo: Andre Jenny / Alamy

Linguists have a long history of attempts to control the indigenous languages ​​they document, one that parallels the colonization of the United States and continues to resonate today. Under US law, a self-taught linguist possessed the language of the Penobscot Nation in Maine – the tribe are still trying to wrest cultural authority over their language from their heritage. In 1998, the Arizona Hopi language dictionary – considered the gold standard in indigenous language preservation – was hit by controversy over whether the University of Arizona or the Hopi tribe owned the dictionary’s copyright.

When Garrett started working with the tribe in 2001, he felt a lot of “resistance” to the Yurok experts’ desire to structure their language, which deviated from academic standards, using single-letter symbols for vowels in phrases such as “sue” in. prescribe Sue-meg. Yurok experts were connected to the system they had begun developing and wanted a dictionary aimed at language learners, not academics, Garrett said. “I would certainly have been relieved if the Yurok people had killed and used the Spanish or Italian vowel script, but they didn’t,” Garrett added. “At some point I got attached to what they have and decided it was kind of nice.”

The revival of the Yurok language was a resounding success and is held up by many as a national model. The language is taught in public high schools, and students can study the language for California college requirements. All of the older tribesmen who spoke Yurok as their mother tongue have since passed away, but people like Lowry live in tandem with their living language. His 12 year old son is called K’nek’nek ‘. “It means heartbeat, or pulse of energy, just as it is,” Lowry said.

The collection of sequoia trees called Sue-meg Village, which now forms the heart of the 640-acre Sue-meg State Park, was built in 1990 by a team of Yurok builders, including Axel Lindgren III. Lindgren helped carve the 20-foot sequoia boards with an antler tool and turned hazelnut branches into ropes to tie the structure together. Later, as the park’s maintenance manager, he meticulously kept the buildings in good shape despite pressure from his boss to devote his time to other projects. “I felt kind of between two worlds,” said Lindgren. “It was time to make that change.”


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