Wailaki, a Local Native Language, Coming Back to Life

Woman at a desk

Native American Studies Professor Kayla Begay. [Photo courtesy of Humboldt State University.]

Story from Humboldt State University:

For the first time in generations, people are beginning to speak Wailaki. The language of the Wailaki people, who lived along the Eel River watershed, was all but lost by the early 20th century, a cultural victim of the decimation of California’s Native population.

Now, Wailaki joins other Native languages continuing to be spoken and revitalized in California. It’s a vision of the future – and a revival of the past – that’s at the heart of Native American Studies Professor Kayla Begay’s research.

Her work focuses on developing a working grammar of Wailaki. One of about 80 Native languages in California, Wailaki shares some similarities with Hupa, though it’s not as well documented. A polysynthetic language, one Wailaki word often contains what in English could need an entire sentence.

Begay is a Hoopa Valley Tribal member of Hupa, Karuk, and Yurok descent. She’d always been interested in language, but it wasn’t until her undergraduate studies at Stanford that she zeroed in on linguistics, earning a degree with honors as well as a minor in Native American Studies. Though she saw a connection between the disciplines, the programs weren’t connected. “I kind of had to make my own path,” she says.

She found a convergence of those disciplines at UC Berkeley’s Linguistics Program, where she earned a master’s degree and is currently finishing her dissertation for a doctorate, entitled “Topics in Wailaki Grammar.” Berkeley is home to a program with a history of studying and archiving California indigenous languages – it’s there that Begay found the crossover between Native American Studies and linguistics that she’s brought to Humboldt State.

“I feel responsible, not just to my language but to all California Native languages as well, so people have resources to learn them and they continue to maintain them,” Begay says.

Begay says she’s creating a tool for educators and community members to use. “A lot of the work teaching and getting the language spoken is being done by those community members,” she says. The working grammar gives those speakers a reference guide that they can interpret, adapt and build upon as they like.

Round Valley School District is home to a Wailaki language program, and Begay has worked collaboratively with the community. Recently, students were seeking to show support for the Dakota Access pipeline protesters with a Wailaki language video, but they were struggling with how to say “Water is Life,” a phrase that came to symbolize support of the movement. So Round Valley Elementary/Middle School Principal Cheryl Tuttle reached out to Begay to help with a translation.

“To-bang Kish-nang”: “Water, because I am alive,” or, “because of water I am alive.”

To map out the language, Begay has been turning to old texts, like those of Pliny Earle Goddard, a language scholar who studied California Native Languages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Begay, along with Round Valley High School educators Tuttle and Rolinda Wantt, and UC Davis Native American Studies Professor Justin Spence, was invited this summer to present at the American Philosophical Society on her work, and was presented with copies of some of Goddard’s original works on Wailaki.

Begay isn’t the first HSU scholar to study Wailaki. Anthropology Professor Victor Golla also studied Wailaki in his survey of Native languages of California, working primarily from the texts of Chinese linguistics scholar Li Fang-Kuei.

Begay has enlisted the help of two Native American Studies students, both of whom approached Begay after hearing about her research.

Jocelyn Edmonson is one of those students, and her fascination with old documents initially drew her in. “There’s something that makes me really happy and giddy about primary sources. It’s reaching back through history.”

She’s been archiving the Goddard texts, going through digital photos of the original documents and typing up the notes. The work is “meditative,” she says, and while the focus of her studies is federal Indian policy, she finds linguistics interesting and sees a connection between Native languages and the law.

Speaking Native languages connects individuals with their cultures and communities. “So much of culture is evident in the way we structure languages and concepts in our languages. It’s one of the many forms of continuance we have,” Begay says. “It usually leads into other avenues for the Native communities to strengthen themselves.”

Youth who grow up learning second languages are shown to have better rates of graduation and academic success.

Begay’s seen that firsthand, in work she’s done with the Head Start program in Hoopa and with the successful Round Valley schools’ Wailaki reintroduction program, which has seen success teaching high school kids the language. Students have created videos and presentations entirely in Wailaki.

Studying, restoring and preserving—and simply using—Native languages has tangible social and cultural effects on the health and wellbeing of communities. “You need all of the tools in the toolbox and that’s one of them,” Begay says.

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17 comments

  • Really cool!!!

  • Awesome!

  • Kudos to Ms. Begay for taking on this worthy course of academic study. Kim, I hope you are following up by contacting the small but dedicated group of local Wailaki descendants and non-Indian supporters in Southern Humboldt and surrounding areas who have already made tremendous progress in their quest to regenerate the Wailaki culture and language. It is, for them, a personal calling as well as academic. I’m certain that Ms. Begay knows who they are.

    • I agree; they’ve done a *lot* of work. Why aren’t they mentioned?

      • It is yet another wonderful development in the resurrection of the Ken-nes-te language. Hard to believe that it took over one hundred years for Goddard’s 10 notebooks to be ‘discovered’… so glad that APS shared them back. Pouring over Goddard’s handwriting is not an easy ‘meditation’. As well as recording the language, his informants offered up some invaluable ethnological information that few have seen, and will be most appreciated by tribal members as it comes to light. This is wonderful wonderful work and all who have contributed behind the scenes and in the public eye are to be commended.

  • I appreciate your hard work and dedication to trying to restore our language I’m sure all Wailaki descendants like myself are very grateful.

  • This is the best news..

  • The last Wailaki speakers passed in the 1960s and no recordings were made to my knowledge.. Tragic.. The Round Valley High School program has been wonderful and the students are excited.. Kayla’s grammar will be a huge help.. This is the result of dedication and hard work on the part of the instructors and students..

    • Ben you are wrong, my Grandfather Oliver Mason and his Cousin regularly spoke Wailaki to each other.

      • It takes all kinds

        I THINK, I don’t KNOW because I don’t know him. But I think he was referring to public speakers, not necessarily those that spoke it privately between each other.
        I know for sure language lives so much stronger amongst family than it does in the spotlight of society.
        And it is really awesome you had the opportunity to actually hear Wailaki! Do you have any “sayings” or words you want to share with us? I would feel really awesome if I could answer the question, “how are you today?” In a language that wasn’t mine but was a language that is trying to stay alive in an area it came from and an area I live.
        As long as that isn’t disrespectful to the people, I want to learn. It’s important to never forget who this area is. I think more people want to learn than don’t.
        Thanks for the share!!!!

  • Great report, very inspiring.

  • Wow! ! This is fabulous news! It makes me so happy!

  • Yay! Having the language is a huge step in reclaiming our heritage.

  • misaqsaqsi Kayla
    tstyutyu yak tityu tstÿu saqsaqwa
    au’au šumoqini

  • All blessings and good will to Kayla!

  • Can you help me learn my language I am from round valley I’m 55 year old n want this.I’m going to a bear dancer for my tribe I go up on the hill on April 1 thank you n I live in sonora ca my number is 707 489 5965

  • Years ago I found some of the language on the internet. Just enough to tease. Was intrigued by a lot of places named with reference to ants. Couldn’t figure out what the fascination with ants was, until one day while taking photos in the hills around Covelo I lay down in the grass to take a shot. Now I know why. Was covered almost instantly with ants, and I do mean covered. Never saw them coming. They were trying to run up my nose, in my ears and eyes. If you see a place with ants in the name, be assured the name wasn’t just pulled out of a hat. To this day I can’t understand how I experienced that without receiving one ant sting or bite. Even with me flailing like a mad man while my wife was beating me like a rug with something she picked up. Couldn’t see what it was because I had ants in my eyes.

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