The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions. Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.
The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.
However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.
According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:
“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”
In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal. Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:
“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”
Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.