Weye Edis (Language Persists)

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Susanville Indian Rancheria Project: Language restoration and perpetuation

Each time we lose a language, we lose the perspective and ideas inherent in it and part of the core of what it means to be a human being. We lose an idea that has been developed through time. A way of interaction and all that is contained within the way people connect with each other disappears.

We have this idea that the world is infinite and yet with language loss, we continue to make the world smaller. We let go of a way of thinking and being we’ve never imagined.

I’m working on a project for the Susanville Indian Rancheria, funded by a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, with the goal of preserving and restoring as much of the Maidu language as we can.

We are in the beginning of the first year of a three-year project and are use audio and visual recording to help preserve what the elders can remember.

Year 1: Talk with the elders.

Year 2: Edit the recordings into a teaching curriculum.

Year 3: Implement the curriculum in Susanville and online.

In the interviews, the elders are explaining why they don’t speak as much Maidu anymore. Much of the language has been lost since they were strictly forbidden from speaking it. The intense oppression of native people became internalized within the community and sometimes within themselves.

I’ve known one of the women I’ve interviewed since I was in kindergarten, but she is sharing information I would never have expected. I’ll call her Mrs. Savalo to respect her privacy. The elders I’ve worked with so far I’ve known all my life. But I never knew the information they are choosing to share.

Mrs. Savalo’s white house is a normal, middle class home, with a swimming pool out back. But she grew up with a mother who gathered the majority of their food from the field, hunting and fishing. And she has a past and a language that only a few people in the world still speak. She is now 93.

In the early 20’s, Mrs. Savalo was staying with her Maidu aunt who had married a Chinese man. She was about eight years old and slept in the laundry shop with her younger sister who was three. She didn’t know her father, who was white. Her mother became pregnant from a white man who lived in the new town they were living in. Right when she gave birth and was still recovering from labor, the man sold their baby, a little girl. Mrs. Savalo remembers her mother sitting in a corner and crying for her little girl, saying she would find her someday. The white man returned and tried to sell her little sister too, but her Chinese uncle intervened on her behalf and chased the man away.

This is the type of information the elders are telling me. Not just about language, but about what they experienced growing up, since that is the root of the language loss. Her husband spoke next.

As a young boy, he and his brother were fishing at a creek, along Mill Creek at Tehama county, near Mount Lassen. The kids were suddenly kidnapped and taken to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, for “assimilation.”  They didn’t see their parents again until they were eighteen. During the summer, the school would let the kids go home if they could afford to pay for a train or other transportation, but he didn’t have enough money.

When a boy was accused of misbehaving or not doing his homework, he had to run the “gauntlet.” He would be forced to run between two lines of boys. All the boys on the sides would have a belt, and they would have to hit the boy. If you didn’t hit the boy hard enough, then you would also have to run the gauntlet and the boy who misbehaved would also have to run through again. Only one boy died from having to run the gauntlet.

And this is the past of the people living next door.

In order to understand why the language has died, we have to start at the root of the difficulties. My hope is the stories will become happier as the telling continues.

This is a language that has been repressed and now that it isn’t, we want to make sure the words are available again. This will keep the world as large as possible and ensure that the perspective contained within the language persists. For me, language restoration and perpetuation helps maintain the potential for human beings.


Original Maidu Music by Farrell Cunningham

Sung by the Maidu Language Class, Grass Valley, CA


2 comments on “Weye Edis (Language Persists)”

  1. Alicia Funk says:

    I was really surprised to realize how recently these terrible things were happening. I also had thought it was just occurring during the gold rush period. Hearing the stories from people who went through it directly is so important and I’m happy Farrell is working on this project.

  2. wildheart says:

    Touching and beautiful post. My college peers seem to believe that the oppression and repression of Native Americans was limited to the 1800’s, when in fact it is continuing even today. It would be great if someday Native languages, like Maidu, could be taken as an elective at universities under the foreign language options. Language is a crucial part of identity, alongside spiritual and cultural traditions. This project sounds great and I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

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