Elder leaves legacy of language, love

Written by Adam Spencer, The Triplicate April 03, 2013 05:52 pm

Thompson
Thompson
More than 300 people attended Saturday’s funeral for Archie Thompson, a 93-year-old, full-blooded Yurok man known for his dedication to teaching and preserving the Yurok language; his devotion to his faith, family and culture and his ever-present smile.

Born May 26, 1919, in a smokehouse in Watek (Johnson’s) Village, Thompson was sent to a boarding school in Hoopa at age 5.

It was at age 8, when he was sent to Klamath to live with his grandmother who spoke only Yurok, that Thompson began to relearn the dialect spoken to him as a boy. The Yurok language which would become one of his greatest legacies.

“Our people will forever be indebted to him and the others that worked to preserve the Yurok language for the Yurok nation,” said Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, who is married to Thompson’s daughter Sherry, at Saturday’s funeral.

Thompson was part of a core group of about ten elders who learned Yurok as a first language and volunteered with the tribe’s language program. All of that group, other than Thompson, had already passed away.

“He was the last fluent speaker that we worked with in our program,” said Barbara McQuillen, assistant coordinator for the tribe’s language program. She said that when a problem with pronunciation or syntax arises, there will no longer be a first-language speaker to call. “We always had someone to call.”

Fortunately for the preservation of the language, hundreds of recordings were conducted with elders, so in a way Thompson will be helping people learn the Yurok language forever.

“That was a huge contribution to the people that he loved so much,” McQuillen said. “He was always willing to give his time for the language; if we ever called him out for a recording or a meeting he would be there.”

The only thing Thompson would not skip for language classes was church and sometimes a grandchild’s baseball game, McQuillen said.

Thompson taught a community Yurok language class in Crescent City, where a young Yurok Tribal member, James Gensaw, first started learning the language; now, McQuillen said, Gensaw is one of the best speakers.

Gensaw even went on to fill McQuillen’s shoes, teaching Yurok language classes for high-schoolers at Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods in Klamath. Now he is a high-level language specialist for the tribe.

For a long time, Thompson would travel from Crescent City to Klamath twice a week to sit in on the class.

“He was my dictionary,” Gensaw said, adding that Thompson’s presence always helped. “He always had that smile that could light up the darkest room.”

As a Yurok Tribal member and lifelong Del Norter, Kim Yost said she’s known Archie since she was a child. She also worked with Archie through the Del Norte Foster Grandparent Program, through which Thompson would go to different schools in the county.

“When he went to classes, he brought his great smile; he has that upbeat, zest-for-life personality,” Yost said. 

In 2009, Yost nominated Thompson for national recognition. Thompson traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Silver Honor in the Mentor Category from the MetLife Foun­dation and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, one of numerous visits to the nation’s capital to receive awards. Thompson last returned to D.C. as part of the Honor Flight for WWII Veterans. 

Thompson helped with Yurok language projects at Humboldt State and was an important source of knowledge for the Yurok Language Project at the University of California in Berkeley, a major effort to create an online digital archive of the Yurok language: dictionary, grammar, texts and language lessons.

McQuillen said it was important to Thompson that people learn the language because of the feelings in Yurok that cannot be conveyed in English.

“Yurok has so much meaning to it ,and it’s sometimes lost in the translation to English; he always said it was a beautiful thing to be able to express himself,” McQuillen said.

“Why aren’t we teaching our young children how to speak our language?” granddaughter Alta Thompson said at the funeral, quoting her grandfather. She named two things that Thompson would want from his people: “Learn your language and always smile.”

Many speakers at Thompson’s funeral, including Alta, recalled a frequent phrase Thompson used: “You be good now.”

Being good, appropriately, captured the way Thompson lived, according to funeral speakers who recalled his good temper as a teacher and in daily life — many said they could not recall a time when he expressed anger.

“I don’t remember Archie ever having a bad moment,” Yost said, adding that he always had an “awesome attitude.”

O’Rourke, who is married to Thompson’s daughter Sherry, said in the 17 years he’s known Archie, he never heard him raise his voice.

“He was never tough,” Gensaw said.

Comparably impressive to Thompson’s Yurok language legacy is the fathering of his large family. Thompson had eight children, four boys and four girls, and did much of the parenting by himself after his wife died from a fall when the youngest was only 2. Thompson had 33 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

For more information on Archie Thompson’s life, read “A bridge to the past” and his obituary on Triplicate.com.

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