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In Karuk 

A family struggles to bring its ancestral tongue back to life

Elaina Supahan Albers remembers well what her husband, Phil Albers Jr., said that day eight years ago when she told him she was pregnant with their first child. She was 20 and he was 23. They both worked hotel jobs and attended Southern Oregon University, although Phil was about to graduate. They were at home in their little rental house on Park Street in Ashland, their first home together.

"It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, we're going to be parents!'" she says, laughing. "It was, 'I have nine months to become fluent!'

The Albers are both Karuk, but at the time they weren't fluent in their ancestral language. Elaina -- everyone calls her Elly -- was proficient. Phil was quickly improving, with help from Elly and her family. But neither had the ease of a native speaker, someone whose first baby babbles had that growling static sound of Karuk: cuuuuhhhr, cuuuhhhhr. They wanted that for their baby.

It was language that brought Elly and Phil together. A mutual mentor at Southern Oregon University introduced them -- the girl who knew Karuk, and the boy who desperately wanted to learn it.

Phil had grown up in Yreka with a Karuk father and Choctaw mother. As a kid, he carried around a Karuk phrase book and pestered the old folks for words. When he was 19, he and another tribal member studied together, poring over the technical Karuk language book written by the tribe's official linguist, Bill Bright, in the 1950s.

Elly grew up in Hoopa and later Orleans. Her father, Terry, is Karuk. Her mother, Sarah, is not. Both of Elly's parents learned Karuk as young adults, then taught the language in schools and helped start the native language program at Hoopa Valley High. They raised Elly, her twin sister and her brother with as much Karuk tradition and language as possible. They even translated the kids' Sesame Street books into Karuk.

And the whole family spent a lot of time talking with their Auntie Vi -- Violet Super -- who lived next door. When Elly and Phil got together, Auntie Vi became a force in their lives, supporting their quest to give their children the fluency they never had. Their kids, they determined, would speak Karuk as their first language.

There would be challenges. The Albers anticipated some of them: their own inadequacies with the language, English surround-sound everywhere they went, few Karuk-speaking peers for their kids to practice with.

But their home-immersion plan turned out to be even harder than they'd imagined.

 

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All across the world, hundreds of indigenous people are reviving their languages. It's a race against time.

The MIT Indigenous Language Initiative estimates that of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, only about 600 might last the century. Of the 165 Native American languages still spoken -- out of the thousands that once existed -- 45 percent of them are nearly extinct, with only a few elderly fluent speakers left; only 5 percent have more than 10,000 speakers. The Navajo language has by far the most speakers: 148,000.

In California, according to linguist Leanne Hinton, 45 of the original 98 indigenous languages once spoken in the region have no fluent speakers left; the rest have a handful of mostly elderly speakers. Hinton is a linguistics professor emerita at U.C. Berkeley who researches language loss and revival. She has a long history with the Karuk Tribe, but at the moment she's phoning from Cape Cod, where she's working with the Wampanoag Nation, which has revitalized its ancestral language strictly from documents.

"They're the ones who met the Mayflower," she says. "There hasn't been a native speaker for 150 years."

Now at least five people can carry on a good conversation, and more people are taking classes so they can join those speakers. (Incidentally, you can see a film about the Wampanoag and their language revival on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka.) One Wampanoag member, a linguist who is leading the revival, is raising her child in the language, just like the Albers in the Karuk Tribe.

The Karuk Tribe's language is highly endangered, with fewer than a dozen fluent elderly speakers. They live throughout a large area, from Yreka to Happy Camp to Orleans to Eureka (and one 96-year-old man lives in Portland). The number of fluent speakers steadily dwindled following contact with Europeans in the 1850s. But since the 1970s and 1980s, when the Supahans and others began diving back into the culture, more adults have been learning Karuk as a second language. Today, language classes in Karuk, Yurok and Hupa are taught in some public schools, and in the community. In 1992, Advocates for Indigenous California Language introduced the master-apprentice program to the tribe (linguist Hinton is one of the main trainers). It's an immersion method in which a fluent indigenous language speaker is paired with a beginning speaker, and they spend up to 40 hours a week together for three years, doing everyday things while communicating only in the indigenous language. About 20 Karuk teams have completed the program and more are signing up, says linguist Susan Gehr, a Karuk Tribe member, who taught at Hoopa Valley High and has been the tribe's language program director.

Gehr, 42, grew up in Sonoma. She didn't hear Karuk spoken until she was 21. She apprenticed to Violet Super -- Auntie Vi -- from 1996 to 1999. In 2008, the tribe began formally recording these master-apprentice sessions and the occasional elder circles. But many had been recording their elders for years.

"Lots of people have boxes and boxes of tapes in their houses, under their beds," Gehr says. She went back to school to get a master's in library science so she could organize the growing mountain of material. She also helped linguist Bright write a Karuk dictionary, which is available in print and online.

Back when Bright first came to Karuk country, in 1949, looking to do his doctorate on the language, there were only a couple of hundred fluent speakers. They were mystified by his interest. Why would anybody want to know about Karuk?

But the towering 21-year-old -- he was 6-foot-5 -- charmed them.

"He was kind of friendly and harmless and not imposing, and the women that he worked with felt very grandmotherly toward him -- plying him with cakes and pies," Gehr says. "He was a little bit bumbling; there are stories of him having several accidents with university cars."

Bright is the only non-Indian to have been made an honorary member of the Karuk Tribe, and when he died in 2006 he was buried on Karuk land.

Still, what about that question -- what is the point of reviving a near-dead language? For that matter, can it even be done?

Hinton says it's about language rights, indigenous rights. The point isn't to dismiss English, as she's heard some skeptics complain. You need English for school, for work -- it's so ubiquitous you couldn't ignore it even if you wanted to.

"The benefit is becoming bilingual, and becoming bilingual in your language of heritage," Hinton says. "Language is a pathway to cultural revitalization and indigenous knowledge -- the knowledge of one's own history, of how to behave toward your relatives."

And yes, it can be done. Look at the biggest success story: Hawaiian has gone from having just 50 fluent speakers 20 years ago to thousands today.

"You can now have a child in a daycare center in Hilo and go all the way through a Ph.D., and all in Hawaiian," says Hinton.

This fall, Andre Cramblit, the Karuk Tribe's language restoration committee chairman, is going to Hawaii to look at the Hawaiian model. Meanwhile, Cramblit's brother, Terry Supahan, dreams of creating language nests -- clusters of tribal housing where everyone, young and old, speaks Karuk. He wants to see the whole community converted to Karuk, just like they've done in Hawaii -- street signs, the chatterboxes down at the corner store -- so that when you drive into Karuk country you know you're in a different place. Like it used to be.

 

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Violet Ruth "Vasihtínihich" Johnny was born on Dec. 3, 1917, and grew up on Butler Flat -- a pretty spot along the Salmon River, about seven miles from the place the Karuk call the Center of the World -- Katimin, where the Salmon River (Masuhsava) flows into the Klamath River (Ishkeesh).

Violet was the youngest of a pack of siblings, and the only one who wasn't whisked away to boarding school to be assimilated; according to family legend, her parents hid her. She stayed home, walked the seven miles downriver to Somes Bar (near Katimin) to go to public school, and became fluent in Karuk and English.

She developed cataracts in her teens, and could only see shapes and shadows, shades of gray. (When she was 80 she had laser surgery and suddenly could see colors; after that, she often wore purple.)

Violet was one of the first people on the river to get a Victrola and, later, a battery operated turntable; she and her husband, Leonard Super, didn't have electricity on Butler Flat. Violet worshipped Elvis. Her shrine to the King, comprised of Elvis gifts people gave her over the years, made it into a book: Jean McMann's Altars and Icons: Sacred Spaces in Everyday Life.

"I went to Dartmouth, and she flew back for my graduation," recalls Cramblit. "And I think a large part of it was they had a side trip to Memphis!"

Auntie Vi and Uncle Leonard Super didn't have kids, but they helped raise a number of relatives' kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. Several of these progeny say Auntie Vi was sweet -- unless you crossed her. Her great-nephew Supahan recalls one time some older cousins did that.

"I was so amazed as a little kid to see this older Indian woman chasing them around with a garden hose, threatening to throw cold water on them from the creek," he says.

Auntie Vi often went to visit her elders -- they talked in Karuk and laughed a lot, Cramblit remembers.

When Supahan and Cramblit started pestering Auntie Vi to teach them Karuk, she balked. Why didn't they just speak it? she asked. Why didn't they know it? Nobody taught us, Auntie, they said. Pretty soon she was talking in Karuk to kids in the high school languages classes and agreeing to be a master speaker in the master-apprentice program. Her great nephews studied with her. So did her great-great nieces, Elly and her twin sister Nisha. And others, in and out of the tribe.

"She was a force of nature," recalls Gehr. "One day she told me, 'I've got to live to be a hundred. I've got this job to do, I've got this language to pass on to everybody.'"

 

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The first time Phil Albers Jr. met Auntie Vi, she spat something at him in Karuk. His wasn't very good yet, so he replied, "Man'ata (I don't know)." So she repeated it in English, looking mean: "You better take care of my niece or I'll come after you."

"I said, 'That's good to hear, I like that,'" Phil recalls.

She liked his frankness, his quickness at learning Karuk, and his ability to get her humor and not be put off by her temper.

"She had that old-time humor, of an old Indian woman," Phil says. "She was really stubborn and very direct and if you were too thin-skinned you would get your feelings hurt. She had a lot of dirty jokes. She would say, 'I'm waiting for a young, handsome man to carry me off.' She was in a wheelchair, but she could walk a little. And I would say, 'Here I am, let's go.' And she would get up out of her chair."

Phil's grammar skills soon surpassed Elly's, although they both agree that she has a much better vocabulary. On visits to Orleans, Phil would read to Violet from Bill Bright's Karuk language book. Violet would repeat what he had read so he could hear it spoken her way. They would laugh a lot.

While Elly was pregnant with their first child, Phil and Auntie Vi made a tape, each of them taking turns telling a story in Karuk. Elly played the tape, holding the headphones to her belly. After Gavyn Machnátach was born -- his middle name is  Karuk for "a flash of light" -- the couple spoke only Karuk to him. As prompts for themselves, they wrote sentences in Karuk and English on pale green index cards and taped them all over the house: Skur'hiram tanivaram: I'm going to school. Tá nikyavîichvar: I'm going to work.

In February 2006, not long after their second son, Íhaan (pronounced "Ee-hawn") Cayden, was born, they moved to Orleans and lived at Elly's dad's house. Auntie Vi lived just 100 feet away; Phil visited her nearly every day to talk in Karuk. Often little Mach -- pronounced "much" -- would toddle over to Auntie Vi's to hang out with her by himself. They tried to spend time with the handful of other families raising their kids to speak Karuk, including Elly's sister, but she lived hundreds of miles away. Many visiting friends would speak English, so Mach was learning English too. Auntie Vi thought that was a good thing.

"She said he'll never succeed if he doesn't learn English," Phil recalls.

Phil and his friends started a cage-fighting club in Orleans that year; he'd gotten into it at the university, where he studied physical education and health. Violet encouraged him, said she wanted to see him fight on TV. She even inspired their fight team's name, Pikship, which means "shadow" or "phantom" in Karuk.

"I was being funny one day, boasting that I could knock anybody out," Phil recalls. "And she said, 'I know somebody you could never knock out.' I said, 'What do you want to bet? I can knock out anybody!' She said, 'Well, you can't knock out your shadow.'"

On the last Wednesday in November 2006, the Albers and some friends went to Reno for the International Fight League tryouts. That night, at 10, they got a call: Violet's house was burning down. They loaded up the car and began the long drive home. They knew without being told that Auntie Vi, who was in a wheelchair and would have turned 89 in five days, hadn't made it out.

It was like a head of state had died, recalls her great nephew, Terry Supahan. The gymnasium in Orleans was packed for her funeral, and every member of the three tribal councils -- Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk -- was there.

Her family was the most affected. Elly stopped speaking Karuk.

"Because when I would stumble or when I would not have the word I needed, I couldn't just walk up the hill anymore," she says. "Because she was gone! And it was like this torment. I mean, all these years of learning and I still needed help and she wasn't there. It was devastating. It was over."

And that's how it went for nearly five long years, crucial time with Karuk lost while Ihaan and Mach heard only English from their mother.

Phil figured Auntie Vi would be pissed if he stopped talking Karuk, so he kept trying. But it was hard with everyone else in the family dumbstruck by grief -- Elly, her dad, her sister. Even Mach stopped talking in Karuk, though it was his first language.

"He'll still cry sometimes at night and say, 'I miss my old grandma,'" Elly says.

 

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A narrow country road leads to Phil and Elly Supahan Albers' house, just up the hill from her dad's place. It winds past fields, grassy orchards, a vineyard, a horse pasture and some homes. The land is green and stuffed with giant oaks, fir, madrone, and tanoak, and encircled by rumpled, interlocking cones of steep, forested hills where patches of shorter trees reveal past logging and fires. This time of year, all through the river country it seems, the air is sweet with the scent of smoked salmon (and, intermittently along the river highways, budding marijuana).

The Albers' wide, glass front doors look out over a generous deck toward field, orchard and mountains. On this early Friday afternoon in late September, the low-angle sun bathes everything in a golden glow. The boys' skateboards wait in suspended motion on the deck. Nearby, delicate bundles of drying grass lie half in the sun, half in the shade.

The doors are open, letting in the fresh, warm air. It's fly season so they come in too and settle, skittishly, at the dining room table where Elly has set out a plate of smoked salmon, some crackers and mason jars filled with water. Elly, a tiny woman with a slender face, large eyes and big smile, waves the flies away.

"We just smoked this," she says. A friend of theirs caught the salmon on the upper Klamath. Elly frowns ruefully and laughs. "The other night, though, a bear broke into our smokehouse."

Monday through Thursday, Elly works downriver off of Highway 169, at the Yurok Tribe's Tulley Creek office across the Martin's Ferry Bridge. She is the acting program manager for tribe's land management and geographic information systems division. On work days, her youngest -- Irysa Sasipuraan, born this March -- joins her at the office. Fridays she and Sasi are at home.

Sasi is napping on the sunny leather couch near the front windows, snug in her blankets and securely tied into the woven Karuk baby basket that Mach slept in when he was a baby. She awakes and cries softly, eyes bright and curious. Her middle name, Sasipuraan, is a Karuk word meaning one who spirals upward. It represents a spiritual path, the way to live one's life. Elly unties Sasi from her basket, murmuring in Karuk: Ôok naa, ôok naa (Come here, come here). She holds her on her lap and answers her phone. It's Phil. Elly hits the speaker phone button and Phil talks to his daughter in Karuk. Sasi stares at the phone, smiling.

After Sasi was born, Elly felt like speaking Karuk again.

"All these words and phrases and sentences just started coming back out of me," she says. "And I put my [index] cards back up."

The pale green cards, with phrases in English and Karuk, are omnipresent. They're at eye level by the refrigerator, on the wall posts by each passageway, on the cabinets in the kitchen. The cards have moved with them from house to house.

Skur'hiram tanivaram: I'm going to school.

Tá nikyavîichvar: I'm going to work.

Chôora mi-thúxath nu-músaan: Let's go see your auntie.

Tá ni' íppak: I'm home.

Tá nupiktar: I missed you.

Elly's husband worries that his family has fallen behind in immersion. It's true that Íhaan's accent isn't as good as Mach's was when he was younger. But Íhaan tends to use Karuk more than his older brother. "He'll be sitting in there on the toilet, singing his Brush Dance song," says Elly, laughing. "Íhaan" is Karuk for "dancer," meaning the warrior dancer in Karuk ceremonies.

She adds that it can only help that Phil's Karuk is better than ever. He now teaches Karuk at Orleans Elementary, and on Thursday evenings he tells stories in Karuk at the community center.

There is a twist: Both boys also have been learning Yurok -- first at the Yurok-focused Kepel Head Start, and now at Weitchpec Elementary, a Yurok magnet school. The nearest Karuk-based school is a Head Start in Yreka, and the Albers wanted their kids to be exposed to local native culture. Learning a second or third language, whatever it is, is important, Elly says -- it's good for the brain.

As if on weird cue, a loud beeping erupts in the kitchen, followed by a mechanical voice that barks in Spanish, then English: "Low battery! Change immediately!"

"Technology!" Elly says, and laughs. Even the smoke alarm is bilingual.

Elly puts Sasi on the floor. She crawls a bit, then reaches out a chubby hand. Cuuuuhhhr, cuuuhhhhr, she says.

Those were the first sounds Mach made, too, when he was her age. They're the sounds of Karuk.

 

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Phil is at home this early Thursday evening in October, getting ready to go tell stories at the community center in Orleans. The boys, just home from school, are popping peanut-butter-stuffed pretzels in their mouths and leaping about the room.

Phil checks his Karuk language Facebook page to see what everyone's talking about. Someone wants to know what the word of the day should be at tribal council; someone else wants the word for "shower," as in rain shower. One guy says he's thinking about going to the local Wall Street protest and wants to know how to say "is occupied by" so he can make a sign that says, "My Karuk country is occupied by Wall Street" in English and Karuk.

A visitor asks the boys to teach her some Karuk. At first, they look at her, silent. Then the words tumble out of each of them. "Xanchíifich -- that's 'frog.'" "Ôok naa -- that's 'come here.'" "And then you say, "tá ni áhoo -- I'm coming." "Pûuhara -- that means 'no.'"

Phil says some people know how to say "poop" in Karuk, Yurok, Hupa and English. He doesn't elaborate. There's no formal process for coining a new Karuk word or phrase. As with any living language, people create words on their own as the need arises -- Phil and Andre Cramblit came up with uhyanavaráyvar for cell phone -- "the talking machine that walks around" -- but that's not the only word for it. These things settle out, eventually, the linguists say.

Phil fishes around in a box, then puts a homemade CD in the disc player. It's him and Auntie Vi, speaking years ago into the microphone, telling a story for Phil and Elly's future children to hear. Phil's voice is halting, unsure.

Mach, sitting at the dining room table now writing out numbers and letters on lined paper, cocks his head, listening. Íhaan listens too, sitting on the couch wrapped in his trusty blanket.

Phil turns it off, scrapes around in another box, brings out a video camera and hits play. It's a video of him and Auntie Vi talking to each other, a few years later. She is wearing her traditional Karuk basket hat. He looks relaxed. They're easily conversing, and laughing.

Phil smiles. He's got plans, he says, to really kick the immersion program into high gear. This month, he's starting a dinner immersion project with three other families. First he'll teach each family some immersion techniques. Then he'll go to each family's home and together they'll fix dinner, eat, and clean up, only talking in Karuk. And then all of the families will come together for a grand finale.

"If we can maintain this, the language is only going to get stronger," he says.

 
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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Bio:
Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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