Preserving Klamath

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Aug 17 17:25:48 UTC 2005

Preserving the Klamath tongue

Published July 31, 2005 

When Mabie "Neva" Eggsman died two years ago at the venerable age of  
95, the earth that covered her grave extinguished the light of one of  
the last living keepers of the Klamath language.

Eggsman was the Klamath Tribes' master language teacher, and her death  
left a void the Tribes have been struggling to fill since.

The Tribes are facing the same dilemma that many other American Indian  
groups around the country are dealing with: how to keep a language  
alive that has seemingly lost its usefulness in an increasingly  
English-speaking world.

Now the future of the Klamath language is balanced on the head of a pin.

Whether it falls to the wayside or is resurrected depends on a  
generation of children who may or may not be interested in a language  
that has no words for i-Pod or Gameboy.

Randee Sheppard is one of two part-time language teachers for the  
Tribes. She takes the language into the classrooms of Mills and  
Chiloquin elementary schools and helps teach at the Culture Camp the  
Tribes hold for children every year.

It's hard when she herself isn't fluent, and has been left without  
anyone she can actually talk with, she said.

Keeping children interested is actually easier than getting adults to  
learn the language, and adult classes held at the Tribes' office often  
draw only one or two people.

It's worth it to her, though.

"I think the language is actually a big part of the culture," she said.  
"It's the only thing we really have that's ours."

Klamath, and its sister language Modoc, are on the brink of extinction,  
meaning there are no known living native speakers.

Some ethnologists classify the languages as already extinct, but tribal  
members think there may be some speakers they don't know about.

Protectors of the Klamath language, as well as Modoc and the Paiute  
dialect spoken by the Yahooskin, aren't alone in their struggle to keep  
the language alive.

In the Western hemisphere, an estimated 500 languages spoken by  
indigenous people are now endangered or extinct. Almost all of the 300  
others that are in a healthy state are in Central and South America.

Despite daunting odds and stretched resources, members of the Klamath  
Tribes are joining many other American Indian tribes that are  
struggling to preserve their language for future generations.

Klamath Tribes Council Member Bobby David, 70, grew up hearing his  
grandparents speak Klamath early in the morning together as they cooked  

While speaking the language of their parents they could hold on to some  
of the old ways.

"They isolated themselves with the language," David said.

Later in the day, with their children and grandchildren, they switched  
to English.

By David's estimation, by the 1940s the language had pretty much died  
out on the reservation.

Also leading to the loss of native languages was the fact people on the  
reservation were speaking at least three different languages - Klamath,  
Modoc and Yahooskin.

Klamath and Modoc are very similar, but Yahooskin is completely  
separate. It was a factor in making English a unifying language.

Children in the early half of the 20th century were sent to Indian  
boarding schools where English was the only language allowed. Speaking  
native languages, even after they returned home, was forbidden.

It was an experience that left many people bitter and unwilling to  
speak the language.

"We were not allowed to even speak with each other," said Marni Morrow,  
one of the organizers of the Tribes' Culture Camp.

The camp was created as a way to bring children back to their heritage  
and pique interest in indigenous ways.

Children at the camp spent last week on the banks of the Williamson  
River, floating in a hand-carved canoe, picking waxy currants and  
playing traditional stick games.

They spent part of the time sitting in the shade and learning Klamath  
words and phrases printed in activity books.

Morrow, like Sheppard, believes it's up to this generation to guard the  
language, and that teachings like these are instrumental.

"These kids will have it, as opposed to my generation that lost it, and  
the older generation that was afraid," she said. "I see we're coming  
back, and we're not afraid."

The state has also stepped in to help keep native languages in tact.

Oregon passed a law in 2001 that allows native languages to be taught  
by people who pass a proficiency test but may not necessarily have a  
teacher's license.

David, who can speak some but isn't fluent, is one of the certified  
teachers. He said learning the language is important to connect people  
to their past.

"I think there's a connection," he said. "I know what I'm doing now,  
but what did I do? Where do I come from? Where is my past?" he said.

There is federal grant money to help American Indian tribes protect  
their language, but the money is scarce and competition is fierce.

Gerald Skelton, the Tribes' director of culture and heritage, said  
trying to regain the language can seem like an overwhelming task.

"It's a big challenge," he said. "Man, it's like you have all these  
factors working against you."

The Klamath Tribes are more fortunate than some. They have materials to  
work with.

Two dictionaries of words were compiled by linguists - one in the late  
1800s and another in the 1950s when there were still about 300 people  
who could speak the language.

Tapes, based on recording of native speakers, and instructional books  
have been made for people trying to learn the language.

Tribal member Georgene Wright-Nelson would like to take the educational  
materials one step further.

She wants to put together a full curriculum that doesn't rely on an  
outsider's interpretation of the language.

"It's not enough to just focus on how to pronounce words," she said.  
"You have to define the culture it comes from. Unless you come from  
that culture, you don't understand the significance of those words."

Ironically, some of the most fluent speakers left are non-tribal  
members such Curt Stanton.

Stanton lives in a trailer outside of Sprague River with a caretaker, a  
couple of dogs and three families of cats that make their homes in  
various woodpiles and sheds around his trailer.

The octogenarian is from a hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal mining town.  
He married a Klamath-Modoc woman, Edna Cowin, after disembarking from  
the USS Intrepid more than 60 years ago.

He learned to speak the language back then because Cowin's older  
relatives spoke no English.

Stanton adopted much of the Klamath culture, as well the language.

He made a niche for himself in Klamath society, making friends with  
members of the Tribes through both hard partying and a determination to  
pick up some of the old ways.

"Seems the meaner they was to me, the more they took care of me," he  

Now except for an occasional Waq lis ?i (pronounced wok-klee-see), the  
Klamath and Modoc greeting, he exchanges with friends in Chiloquin,  
he's left without a soul to talk to.

"When we were so young, we were so busy chasing the bottle and being  
modern, we thought the old people would be here forever," he said. "We  
woke up one day and it was all gone."

Klamath language words

The word "Klamath," of uncertain origin, does not come from the  
Klamath-Modoc language.

Following are words from the Klamath language. The question mark  
indicates a gutteral sound, like an opening of the vocal chords.

?ewksiknii - People of the Lake (Klamath)

moowat'aakknii - People of the South (Modoc)

goos - tree

p'as - food

c'waam - sucker or mullet

?anko - wood

lac'as - house

y'ayn'a - mountain

lilhanks - deer

s?abas - sun
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