Language is key to teaching of tribal traditions
At the sixth annual Smith River Rancheria Youth Camp this week, Del Norte youths have engaged in traditional Tolowa arts, games, hunting and, most importantly, language.
"You can't separate language from culture," said Culture Department Director Marva Sii~xuutesna Jones-Scott.
The Tolowa language program was awarded nearly $900,000 in grants from the federal Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and was recently one of two programs in the country recognized for their innovative approach for language during a conference of ANA grantees last January.
Thirteen-year-olds Chanda Jones and Chuski Scott have been attending
the camp since the very first year and hope to someday teach the
language as well.
"Our language is dying, and I want to keep it strong," Scott said.
Passing on the endangered Tolowa language is a main focus of the
camp, but leaders teach other native activities as well.
Camp participants learned how to build fires like their ancestors;
how to play the traditional stick game; bear grass basket-weaving; how
to drill holes in rock for the creation of jewelry or Tolowa regalias;
and how to hunt and fish using bow and arrow, spears, nets and clubs.
"Mom, I wish I could get a scholarship for stick game," said one of
Inside the Rancheria Community Center, children sat in front of a
wall covered with various pictures, like a man, woman, cup and a bird.
One youngster pointed to an object and the camp leader led the kids in
saying the Tolowa word for each object.
Tolowa words have even been created for modern items, such as cars
"Tolowa is a descriptive language, so you can make new words by
describing what something does," said tribe member Ruby Tuttle.
For instance, "srii~-ghee-naa -t'a" is the Tolowa word for airplane,
but it literally means "flies high above."
Eunice Bommelyn, the oldest of the fluent speakers, remembers how her
family had to live deep in the woods while their tribe was being
persecuted. She's happy to see the language passed on to a new
"These little kids are catching on," she said. "I think we should
carry it on as much as we can."
Her son, Loren Me'-lash-ne Bommelyn, became involved with preserving
Tolowa in 1969 when tribe members were first starting to convert it to a
written language. Loren now teaches Tolowa at Del Norte High School,
where students can take the class to fulfill their foreign language
He emphasizes the importance of understanding a culture through its
"Every language has its own world-view," he said.
The Tolowa word for Earth, for example, is "Nvn-nvst-'a~" which
literally means "For you it is placed."
"Like a gift," he said. "It shows you how to live in the world."
Now Loren Bommelyn's son, Pyuwa Bommelyn, teaches the Tolowa language
at the University of Oregon, where he is working toward his doctorate
in linguistics so he can also work on preserving his family's heritage.
Pyuwa Bommelyn stresses the value of the camp, even if it only reach a
few of the 42 participants.
"Even if you only get two or three that are totally interested in the
language, it's worth it," he said. "It's still an impact and a
difference for our future."
Chanda Jones recognizes the value of this resource:
"We're fortunate to have this language camp, because a lot of native
kids don't have that."
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.