Tolowa mourn loss of a leader: Eunice Bommelyn
Eunice Xash-wee-tes-na Henry Bommelyn, an instrumental figure in the resurgence of Tolowa culture, died Monday in Crescent City, surrounded by dozens of relatives and friends, holding her hand and singing with her until she took her last breath.
A treasured Tolowa cultural resource, Eunice Bommelyn, 85, died April 2. “Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Bommelyn, 85, was born Feb. 6, 1927, in the Tolowa village of Nii~Lii~chvn~dvn, which is also called the Jane Hostatlas allotment on present-day South Bank Road.
At the insistence of her mother, Alice Henry, Bommelyn, as the youngest, became the first of her nine siblings to graduate from high school. She was in the 1947 class of Del Norte High.
That emphasis on education was a common theme in Bommelyn’s life that she passed on to her children and grandchildren.
Bommelyn was dedicated to preserving the traditions and culture of her people.
“What she taught me my whole life was ‘learn, teach, learn, teach,’” said daughter Sheryl Suu-daa-chu Steinruck. She remembers her mom saying: “‘One day, we’re going to die and you will become the older generation and what kind of teacher are you going to be?’”
After high school, Bommelyn was working in the lily bulb industry when James Bommelyn of Trinity County came to the area to find work. Instead he found Eunice.
The family tells a story of James Bommelyn hopping on the running board of Eunice’s truck and refusing to get off until she agreed to go on a date with him. They married in 1950.
Eunice became involved with the Inter-Tribal Council of California (ITCC), and spearheaded an effort to teach the ceremonial Nee-dash dance to the Tolowa children in the Smith River community.
Sheryl Steinruck remembers looking up at an audience while practicing Nee-dash and everyone was crying. She thought, “Wow, we’re really bad.” But the reality was that the audience was overwhelmed.
“They hadn’t seen the dance since 1923 (when Indian religious practice was outlawed) and they were thankful that the younger generation was learning and doing it right,” Steinruck said.
The tribe will refrain from dancing the Nee-dash this year in honor of Bommelyn.
Her involvement with the ITCC laid the groundwork for organizations that are integral to Smith River Rancheria today.
And her curiosity about her genealogy led to the ending of a protocol that prohibited speaking a deceased person’s name. Bommelyn would ask questions about her family until relatives finally broke down and told her. She traced Tolowa lineages back to the 1790s, when only Indian names were used.
“She was our textbook. She was our historian,” said her son, Loren Me’-lash-ne Bommelyn.
The genealogical information that came out of her work is still used today to determine Smith River Rancheria tribal enrollment.
The fishing nets she made are the only ones still used by the tribe.
She fought Indian Termination, a federal policy that sought to assimilate Indians into modern culture while erasing their own, while other tribes signed on. She obtained the Jane Hostatlas allotment, a property that is still used for tribal ceremonies today.
Gardening, canning and other self-sustaining practices she taught are still used by the tribe for sustenance.
Bommelyn was always generous with her knowledge, and she was an especially important asset in preserving the Tolowa language. She was the last person alive who spoke Tolowa as her first language, known as an L1 speaker in linguistics.
“Language loss is a huge issue around the world,” said her grandson Pyuma Bommelyn, who is now studying linguistics at the University of Oregon in order to continue work on preserving the language.
Pyuma’s father, Loren, has done extensive work to preserve the language, including teaching classes at Del Norte High. His other son, Guylish, and relative by marriage, Cynthia Steinruck, are starting to teach some of the classes to keep it alive.
“It’s carrying on Gram’s legacy,” Guylish said.
The family said one of Bommelyn’s greatest joys later in life was hearing children’s ability to speak Tolowa.
“What she really wished and hoped for is that our language would never die,” Loren said. She participated in a language teaching session just two weeks before she died.
Bommelyn knew that the tribe had to live two lives to survive: the modern culture and the traditional culture, epitomized by Loren’s practice of texting and using Facebook in the Tolowa language.
Loren called his mother’s death a “huge loss” for the language, as she was the last person who knew the language organically, being able to clarify words or phrases with multiple uses.
“She’s like the sun,” said granddaughter Tayshu Bommelyn. “She’s our giver of life ... always with us and always there ... what we’re still figuring out is how we continue without our sun.”
Family members and friends cut their hair after Bommelyn's death, a symbolic way of “severing the connection between you and the spirit so their spirit can travel,” Loren said.
Her grandsons planned to dig her grave this morning at dawn, and at 1 p.m. today they will carry her casket to the How-On-Quet Indian Cemetery overlooking the mouth of the Smith River and bury the casket themselves.
The lid liner of her casket speaks to Eunice Bommelyn’s passion of passing down tradition: “Let the work that I’ve done speak for me.”